How Should You Respond to Adversity? First, say, “Thank you!”
I sat in my coach's office during a meeting with an angry parent, as I have done many times before, awaiting what I thought was going to come out of his mouth. But instead, he caught me off guard, which was rare as he said to me, “I was so mad at you last night after the game that I wanted to take my cell phone and throw it at your head!”
That was not what I expected, so I felt an urge of anger arise within me and what I wanted to say back to him was, “Then let’s go outside right now, and I’ll give you one shot, but you better make it count because if not, I’m going to knock your ass out!”
But of course, I didn’t and couldn’t say that. Now, the college version of me wouldn’t have said anything, only responded with a punch to the jaw. But a coach, on the other hand, always has to take the high road.
So, at that moment, I did what I always have done in the past during my coaching career. I sat with a poker face and allowed the parent to vent. Now granted, he was not upset at how I treated his child. His child was a very hard worker and highly coachable.
But, instead, he was upset about one thing and one thing only, playing time. Or should I say, lack of playing time? Because it wasn’t as if his child didn’t play at all. He did, however, play as much as our coaching staff believed he should play.
I have more stories like that, such as when we defeated the #2 ranked team in Northern California in a triple-overtime thriller, which was one of the most exciting wins of my career. Just after that win, as I was going through the post-game handshake with the other team, I felt my cell phone buzzing in my pocket. Wow, I thought! I was already getting congratulatory texts!
But as I got back to the team room and checked my phone, I realized two different texts from two other parents who were frustrated and requested parent meetings ASAP. As a result, their kids did not get in the game at all. But this is competitive varsity basketball, and playing time is not guaranteed. And, we made the correct decisions resulting in an upset victory over the #2 ranked team in Northern California.
I could go on and on with stories similar to those. You see, in my 17-years as a varsity boys basketball coach, I’ve been yelled out, criticized, put down, threatened, and cursed out. But ironically, it never had to do with how I treated their child. However, it always came down to playing time complaints and the parents' unreasonable expectations of their child.
Flash forward to this current day, and for the past six months, I’ve been coaching my son’s 7–9-year-old youth basketball team. And it’s been a 180-degree change.
Instead of getting yelled at and criticized, I’ve been given gifts, thank you cards, praise, and compliments. So why is there such a big difference all of a sudden? How did I go from constantly being criticized to all of a sudden being praised daily?
The reason for the change is because I don’t control playing time while coaching my youth team; the league rules do instead.
The league rule states that each quarter will be broken up into two halves, and at each break in the quarter, the coach must sub in each player on the bench. So with ten players on the team, we substitute five in and five out at each break.
But I know what’s coming down the road. As my son gets older and gets into more competitive leagues and I follow him while coaching his teams, I will eventually have to make decisions on playing time and even make team cuts. And that is when the parents will turn on me and begin to resent me once again.
The crazy thing is that it’s getting worse as the parent's expectations increase. Of course, they all want their child to get a sports scholarship or make it to the pro’s or maybe their self-esteem is wrapped up in their child.
They spend thousands of dollars a year for trainers and travel ball, so they expect to see a return on their investment. But, instead, the acquisition increases their expectations, and when the expectations are not met, they must find a scapegoat. And that scapegoat inevitably will be the coach.
And some have zero self-awareness when it comes to their child’s basketball ability. I’ve often wished that before a parent meeting, there was a magical way for parents to have the insight and self-awareness of their child’s abilities so that their expectations would focus on growth rather than outcomes. But that was never going to happen.
When did youth sports become more focused on those outcomes rather than on the lifelong lessons learned? Or memories and experiences that are created and the fun competing with their friends?
And that’s not all; in my coaching journey, I’ve had to navigate through the following challenges: helping a player deal with a divorce, teen pregnancy, death in the family, verbal and physical abuse, helping a player who’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, car crashes, acting out in school, bipolar disorder, depression and learning disabilities. One parent held a knife to one of my player’s throats.
The crazy thing is that there are no coaching clinics or classes or books that I’ve seen that can help a coach learn to better deal with those issues. And I was hired as a varsity coach at the age of 24 and only had two years of prior coaching experience. One year as a varsity assistant coach while still in college, the second was as a head freshman coach. So how was I supposed to be trained to deal with those issues when I was still a kid?
Or how about the following scenario:
One time had a large group of students from another school bum rush into the middle of our practice and coming after one of our players. The kid leading the charge had his hand in his pants as if he was holding a gun. I got in front of that kid and put my hand over his arm to prevent him from pulling out a gun and opening fire.
Fortunately, they all left without taking action other than yelling and cussing at the particular player on our team. I never did find out if that kid really had a gun or not.
The other interesting thing about that practice was that we had a kid who was being recruited to UNLV on a football scholarship and one of their coaches was in the gym at the time and witnessed the entire event. I wonder what he was thinking. I remember what I was thinking, “Welcome to public high school.”
So, to recap, a modern-day coach at the public high school must be a skilled psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor, teacher. They must also know how to diffuse angry parents, handle adversity, prevent team overconfidence, mentor, disarm possible shooters, and, oh yeah, be skilled in Xs and O’s.
They also must know the end of game tactics, motivation, how to get selfish kids and parents to buy into their roles and sacrifice for the team. Yet once again, most coaching clinics only deal with the Xs and O’s.
Fortunately for me, I had great mentors to help me navigate these treacherous waters. Older coaches who had been there before. And I also learned to study outside the sport of basketball by diving into stoicism philosophy, leadership, business, psychology, to name a few.
When I was a younger coach going through these challenges, I would get frustrated and wish I could coach kids who bought in and understand parents who let me coach without trying to tell me what they thought I should do, which would benefit their child. But that was rare.
The crazy thing is that it did happen in my first-ever season as a coach. We had coaches, parents, and players on the same page. It indeed was an excellent season. I thought this coaching thing was going to be easy. I was so wrong.
However, I realized the challenging situations in my coaching career made me much better at my craft! And, the path to improvement goes through difficulties, challenges, and adversity because I had to find solutions to these problems.
So, first, I had to study, read, talk to mentors, spend time deep in thought. Then I had to test, experiment, observe and then reflect. And along the way, I came up with some gold nuggets that would prove helpful the next time I encountered a similar situation.
Each gold nugget was like a tool I could use when needed. So I placed the device in a tool belt that rested around my waist, ready to use when the time called for it. Eventually, my tool belt got heavier and heavier over time until I had a full, rich, and diverse belt.
I realized that I would never have developed the tools that made me a better coach without the challenges and difficulties. But, if I did coach a team of high-character kids who bought in and had understanding parents, then I wouldn’t have improved. So now, I’ve learned to say “Thank you” to all the challenging players and parents I have come across.
What these challenges have also given me is thick rhino skin. The rhino skin has been developed through years and years and has been callused so much that when someone wants to criticize me now, they don’t affect me because they cannot penetrate the thick, callused rhino skin. So once again, I say “Thank you” for all the challenges I have faced for making me stronger.
I wonder what would happen if the parents took the same approach. What if when their child wasn’t getting adequate playing time, they used it as a way to teach mental toughness and develop life skills?
And what if the parent used it themselves to become better by learning and practicing to journal, meditation, prayer, and exercise. If that happened, we would evoke real change that would make youth sports and the world a better place.
So I challenge our society and communities to embrace pain, struggle, and difficulties as it was once said, “smooth seas never made a strong sailor.”
The late, great basketball coach Rick Majerus once said, “Parents want to take all the pain, all the heartache and all the sadness out of their kids lives. All the things that make you a better person, a better coach, a better teacher- all the things that are so much the fabric of our life. I’m so much better for every loss I’ve had. You become so much better a person for all the bad things that happen to you. But all these helicopter parents, they just hover there and they want to take all that away from their kids. They just don’t want them to fight through it.”
So, what happens instead, parents blame the coach and take the responsibility and accountability off their child. Therefore, the child fails to reflect, work harder and learn and grow.
Let’s change all of that. Next time your child goes through those struggles, learn to say, “Thank you.”
Embrace it, flip the script, change your perspective and instead use it to teach real-life lessons. Try this the next time something terrible happens to you or your child: write down three positives about that situation. Then, train yourself to find the good in every bad situation.
We should be striving to become the best possible version of ourselves. But instead, we compare ourselves to others and focus on outcomes. That only leads to disappointment and unhappiness.
Instead, we should strive for constant improvement and learn to enjoy the journey. And if we can find a way to enjoy the struggles, too, then we will make the world a better place.
But for this to happen, we must work hard and be patient because nothing extraordinary will happen overnight. We must learn to delay gratification. And if you do that, watch how your child gradually develops mental toughness and positive character traits that will serve them not only in sports but for a lifetime in whatever career they enter.
That’s what youth sports should be, a training ground to learn and apply life lessons and positive character traits. So enjoy the journey, struggles, and all. Learn to say, “Thank you!”