“REFLECTIONS” A Column on Coaching, The Role of Parents, and the importance of Time and Space

Column By Tony Smith


A distinguished Washington State high school basketball coach’s survey of past and present Division I and D-II athletes:

Coach: What do you remember as your best high school basketball experiences:

Players: My teammates, relationship with the coaches, the bus trips, and friendships gained with worthy  opponents.

Coach: What do you remember as your worst high school basketball experience:

Players: Getting in the back of the car after games, with my father denigrating my coaches, teammates, and my own performance.

The complaint referred to above was virtually unanimous amongst those talented enough to play “at the next level,” whether it be at a major basketball powerhouse such as Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Villanova, Gonzaga, etc, or at smaller local colleges , such as Whitworth, Carroll College, University of Montana or Eastern Washington University. Many collegiate athletes expressed considerable psychological turmoil and confused loyalties that ensued due to those “back of the car” experiences. Consequently, of the many coaching clinics I attended over the years in my own non-illustrious, but extremely enjoyable coaching career, this information on “Coaching and the Role of Parents,” as well as one by the same instructor entitled “The Importance of Time and Space in High School Athletics” was by far the most enlightening and valuable, especially considering my own role as a coach and grandfather of an athlete who played for Havre High School, one who had the opportunity to participate in three consecutive Class A State Tournaments.

PARENTAL BEHAVIOR AND RESPONSIBILITY: I’m hopeful that as we near the beginning of another basketball season, that the parents of athletic participants will consider the following remarks this particular essay enjoins. One may also consider the information applicable to all sports; however basketball, being such a “public” event, often brings out some of the most pronounced behaviors and emotional responses that we see in sporting activities at the high school level. Indeed, not all of those responses are positive. It has been my personal experience, however, that the vast majority of parents keep a healthy perspective, striking a balance of academics, the arts, and athletic endeavors, and are, for the most part, supportive of the efforts that coaches make on behalf of their kids. Make no mistake, it is my view that a parent or fan wearing Trojan or Logger paraphernalia (or any team’s paraphernalia for that matter) that would publicly belittle a group of 14-15 year- old “C” team girls making a valiant effort against a swarm of talented Columbia Falls athletes, or berate a 16-year-old young man for dropping a pass or missing a layup in a hotly contested game against Bigfork or Browning, is emotionally not equipped to represent neither the school nor the event. Perhaps it is a sign of the mean-spirited times in which we live; however, it appears to me from historical and personal experience that one or two “rogue” fans or parents will simply be replaced by others as each season unfolds.

COACHING: Coaches, parents, players, and even referees are in a symbiotic relationship, one that is beneficial to all in a normal, healthy sporting environment. High school sporting contests are exciting and highly stimulating, emitting raw emotion from fans and participants alike, emotions often lacking in the sterile, technological society in which we exist.  Coaching, however, is one of the most scrutinized and thankless professions in our culture. Out of the public purview, coaches spend countless hours and sleepless nights agonizing over “cuts” that might have to be made, preparing for practices, breaking down film of opponents, participating in summer sessions and tournaments, improving both strength and skill positions in the weight room; washing towels, uniforms, mopping the gym floor-hours spent away from family-and all the while maintaining a quality and high standard of classroom teaching. The idea espoused by some school administrators that teachers shouldn’t be coaches, is absolutely absurd-not only does the school lose a potential pool of those willing to coach, but nothing compares to the connections coaches make with kids outside the classroom, not only in sports, but in drama, dance, music, etc., connections that motivate students in the classroom that might otherwise be unmotivated. Some of Troy’s finest coaches have been outstanding teachers—for example, the late Rich Ramondelli and Dennis Latimer, both of whom were lured-or coerced- to THS by our principal John Konzen and won numerous state championships, were highly organized and effective teachers. And the same is true with Troy’s previous coaches, Jerry Mee, Don Myers, and Cory Andersen. Coach Andersen, for example, has for years given up his “prep” hour at THS to teach an extra class; Coach Mee is one of Libby’s most respected classroom instructors. Jeff Ferderer, a long-time track and field coach, was one of the finest classroom instructors in THS history. And Randy Cornwell, the coach I was honored to work with at THS for nearly ten years and who won a football state championship with the Colville Indians, was invited to the recent Pro Bowl practices in Orlando, Florida, was on the Don Shula “watch list” for National High School Coach of the Year,” was a dedicated English teacher at THS with a huge “paper load” waiting for him daily after practice. More recently, my experiences with Logger coaches Wally Winslow, Jim May, and Josh Bean, their dedication to kids and classroom organizational skills, as well as the basketball knowledge they’ve imparted, have been unparalleled!

And last, but certainly not least, most spouses of coaches make enormous sacrifices on behalf of the kids and activities involved.

So then what motivates coaches to perform duties under such intense public scrutiny and criticism that most shy away from?  Simply a love for the game and the connections with kids who play it! It is that pure and simple. Furthermore, the coaching fraternity is very strong and supportive across the broad spectrum of the business. All coaches recognize what each other has been up against, and the willingness to tackle such a scrutinized task is widely respected.

 THE ROLE OF PARENTS IN SPORTS: It goes without saying that parental influence on a child is immeasurable, either positively or negatively. Parents, working positively with coaches, can make the difference in their child’s sports “journey,” an experience, seen in retrospect, as one described by the survey mentioned above. It often has a “roller-coaster” affect for the parents, witnessing firsthand the emotional trauma involved in sporting activities for the teen athlete. However, supportive parents demand accountability (not only from their teen, but from coaches as well), accept adversity as “teachable moments,” and do not enable excuse-making from their teen. Working together, both coaches and parents want a successful and healthy outcome from sports. That may or may not involve state championships (rare to come by), but achieving to the best of one’s ability is surely the most desirable and rewarding outcome, one that ultimately becomes a life-long skill.  Striving for excellence, relationships built with teammates and coaches, and the inevitable hilarious incidents that occur on many bus trips, often surpasses the remembrance of games won or lost.

Conversely, a negative influence can be devastating for the teen athlete, and the evidence is clear that it literally “sucks the joy” out of the athlete’s high school experience. Dad’s “voice,” perhaps the most influential in an athlete’s life, berating the coach and teammates, is a virtual “stab in the back” to the team, and can inhibit the athlete’s ability to become an inclusive member of it.  Some coaches, myself included, have had players who were “paid for points,” by parents, virtually destroying the essence of “team” for the athlete, and making the task of team-building even more difficult for a coach.

Fortunately, many parents are involved in youth programs, thereby gaining a greater appreciation for the difficulties involved, and devote considerable efforts on behalf of sporting activities, whether it be fund-raising, selling paraphernalia, or raffle-tickets and the like. Many of us in coaching would be at a loss without those parental efforts.  In fact, the parents I had the good fortune of associating with at Libby High School several years ago had some of the finest parenting skills I ever encountered throughout my entire coaching career. The results were clear: remarkable, high-achieving kids!  And the same can be said of the many former THS parents and students I had the privilege of working with.

 THE IMPORTANCE OF “TIME AND SPACE” FOR THE HIGH SCHOOL ATHLETE: It is a natural response of parents to want an immediate “fix” to the emotional effects of a tough loss or less-than-desirable performance by the student-athlete. If the axiom is true that confronting a coach immediately after a highly-charged contest is a bad idea, it is also true that a quick “fix” for the student-athlete will inevitably lead to a poor response. What the athlete vitally needs is “time and space.” Kids do not desire an immediate “do-over” of the game, neither in the back of the car with mom and dad, nor at the front of the bus with the coach. What they do want is time to process their feelings, either alone, or with peers, and often much of that “processing” has little, if anything to do with the game.

Perhaps a “time and space” example would best illuminate this very important concept, one that without proper instruction from that experienced coach, I would have failed over the years. Since his childhood, my grandson had been coming to Troy for holidays or school-free days, and would inevitably ask, upon getting out of the car, “might we go to the gym tonight?” It didn’t matter if the time was 6:00 p.m. or 10:00 p.m., we automatically went to the gym. I insisted that the first half hour be devoted to “skills,” and then we were free to play “horse,” “21,” or just go “one on one.” As events would have it, he landed in Havre, grew to 6’4, and enjoyed three years on a highly successful state tournament team, and one with Montana’s leading scorer. When an opportunity came for us to attend his games (usually in Browning or at Great Falls Russell), while we appreciated a brief pre-game visit, I insisted that he never look up in the stands at me during time-outs or after being removed from the game. Although I might have helped facilitate his skills in Troy, I made it very clear to him that I was not his coach during his games. After the game and the coach allowed him to ride back to Havre with us, win or lose, he was usually very subdued. When we spoke, it was generally about family, hunting season, his role in drama, etc., about anything other than basketball. By the time we reached Fort Benton, perhaps 40 miles or so from Great Falls, he would begin to verbally “process” his feelings about the game, asking about his performance. Since his coach, teammates, (unless presented in a positive light) or excuse-making about referees were totally “off-limits,” I was able to quietly reinforce and emphasize the importance of his defense, assists, offensive boards (which is how he scored most of his points—something that tells you about the heart of a player), and the great screens he set for his teammates. His “points” were never an emphasis of our discussion. Invariably, he arrived back in Havre in a great frame of mind.

In the end, he enjoyed his basketball experiences immensely, and was a highly respected, consummately unselfish teammate. His senior year at State, he had the unenviable task of guarding Polson’s Matt Rensvold, who continues to be a major contributor to Montana Grizzly football at tight end, and did so as well as anyone could in the tournament.

Throughout our subsequent grouse hunting forays on Mt. Henry, our grandson has reflected on those Havre years, and expressed much appreciation for the “time and space” he was given by this coaching grandparent. The fact that he was able to recognize, acknowledge, and articulate the importance of it, was very gratifying to hear.

I hope this essay has been worthy of your time, and that you would consider the wisdom imparted to me by that outstanding Washington State coach, to whom I am greatly indebted. And please remember, these are our kids and coaches, together doing the best they can. Let them enjoy it!