A FEW MINUTES AFTER our flag football team’s 46-0 drubbing, I had to address a group of downtrodden 9- and 10-year-olds. As they all took a knee, I opted not to sugarcoat the loss or offer excuses, such as our limited practice time or missing our best player due to injury. I praised their effort and attitude, but the other team was simply much better. I told the boys there’s an expression for this kind of result.
“Some days you eat the bear,” I said on the chilly November evening in El Sereno, “and some days the bear eats you.”
Did they get it? Not even close, and the eight youngsters looked at me like I’d just read them a passage from Dostoevsky through a mouthful of marbles. But that’s one of the things about coaching kids: Do it long enough and you’ll hit this kind of game, and what happens next matters much more than what just occurred.
I’m in my fourth season coaching my now 10-year-old son’s basketball team, and I have one flag football season in my pocket. It’s all at city park leagues, meaning a relatively low level of competition. Forget those expensive and weekend-destroying travel or club squads—I dig the local rec center, where seasons last less than three months, the price is below $100 including uniforms, all coaches volunteer, and your team is like the proverbial Forrest Gump box of chocolates—given the everyone-in pool, you have no idea what kind of athletes you’ll get.
I coach basketball because I love the game (I coached football because no one else was available). Although my jumper would make Kawhi Leonard wince, I know how to impart fundamentals and foment team play. Not every kid can shoot, but with patience you can teach even newbies to raise their arms, move laterally and be a pest on defense. The key is to identify how each kid can contribute, convince them that defense and passing are as important as scoring, and offer positive reinforcement. Then you hope for parental involvement — I generally ask for at-home practice, though one enterprising mom augmented that by offering her 7-year-old daughter Elsa (kids’ names have been changed) a bounty of $10 per steal. Elsa collected two that season, which I guess makes her the first professional I’ve coached.
I’ve helmed a 23-2 basketball victory and been on the sidelines for a last-second loss that left kids crying. But in coaching one thing you learn is that their resiliency is amazing—nothing halts tears like the post-game snack of a juice box and Oreos, and then goofing around with their teammates. You may want to dissect each play during the car ride home, but most kids have a capacity of about two minutes of post-game analysis before asking what’s up for the rest of the day.
In coaching, like many other things, you steal from those who came before you. I’ve learned to hand out a “conduct code” at the season’s first practice; I ask players to read it with their parents and sign their name. It’s simple stuff stressing accountability and behavior, with lines like, “I will always try my best. I will never quit,” and “I will respect the referees.” I never say so aloud, but the conduct code is for the parents, too.
Like the kids, I improve each season, and I’ve learned things that have surprised me. I won’t say winning’s not important, because it’s more fun to win than to lose. But some victories have nothing to do with the score.
At this age, individual breakthroughs matter. Evan may be able to drop 15 points a game, but there’s a different kind of achievement when he finally opts to give up a shot and instead passes to Randall, who hasn’t scored all season but is open under the basket (that Randall will probably blow the layup doesn’t matter). When Keith, who could barely dribble at the start of the season, snags a rebound, puts the ball on the floor three times without getting called for traveling and makes a crisp pass, then you can see he’s actually learning basketball. I remember that moment from last season, but honestly, I can’t recall if we won that game.
You can’t really measure the kind of wins that coaching provides. Well, except for Elsa’s steals— in that case it’s $20.
As for me, coaching my son’s team, I always feel like I eat the bear.