So yesterday I arrived at the high school where I coach JV, 15 minutes before our bus was scheduled to leave for an away game, to find out that our head coach had pneumonia and would not be joining me on the sideline. I was on my own.
Coaching high school kids by yourself as a 22-year-old, first-year coach is what substitute teaching must feel like. Or the first time a dad is left alone with his newborn. You have to act like you’re in complete control when really the whole operation is inches from going completely off the rails.
But projecting authority wasn’t my only concern. I’ve played defense since I first stepped on the field. I was brought in to be a defensive mind to complement our HC’s offensive scheme. In this game, I had to coach offense too. Now not only was I expected to keep this from devolving into Lord of the Flies, I also had to make sure they put some goals on the board.
It started rough. We gave up two quick ones off of turnovers to start the game. Sensing weakness, they cranked up the pressure and I had to adjust. I felt the parents staring daggers at me. I put our guys in our rarely-used open set, forcing the defense to sluff in and be ready for adjacent slides. This allowed us to swing the ball more freely. We battled back to go up 3-2 in the second frame, when we drew a penalty. I called timeout.
The guys know the man-up well at this point. Better than me, probably. So instead of talking X’s and O’s, I took a strictly motivational approach. “We’re done letting them dictate,” I told the players. “From now on we take our game to them.”
They responded. We run a pretty basic wheel and the defense chose to let our initiator carry across the face of the defense with his hands free, not knowing he has a cannon of a high-to-high shot. Instead of throwing the pass back against the grain to run the play, he set his feet and ripped one right under the crossbar to put us up 4-2. We rode strong goalie and ground ball play the rest of the way to a 7-4 victory.
Things worked out for us in the end but staying dialed in as a coach was hard. It’s way too easy to cuss too much trying to fire guys up and to holler at the refs.
There was even one play where my instinct was to chirp an opposing player (I resisted). Our smallest attackman flung himself into the other team’s best pole, jarring the ball out-of-bounds right in front of our sideline and we all went nuts. The kid turned and said something salty like, “act like you’ve seen a lacrosse game before.” It was weak. So weak. But I had to focus on getting our offense to get a quick restart and settle in.
Coaching is hard. There’s so much more you need to pay attention to. You’re under the microscope and you have to behave. You have to suppress the adrenaline, the elation of winning and the agony of defeat, to be gracious and conversational after the game. And in my case you have to make 30 boys behave on a 40-minute bus ride afterwards.
And hopefully you don’t have to do it alone.
Catch up on Shears’ Coaching Chronicles: