As the first official post of Intentionally Grounded, I’d like to take the time to give credit and notice to all of the young coaches that are currently working their way through all levels of our coaching profession. The grind is upon you, but lifelong, rewarding experiences await you. I understand that the journey to reach your ultimate coaching goals can sometimes seem daunting. Whether you dream of being a position coach, coordinator, head coach, collegiate coach, or professional coach, there exists a long road ahead and it is easy to get discouraged or overwhelmed. I challenge you not to. By coaching standards, I am still relatively young in my coaching career and, yet, I feel like I’ve been on this journey for much longer than I have. What a journey it has been so far! A journey that has had its fair share of “highs” and “lows”, but a journey that has fostered a tremendous amount of spiritual, personal, and professional growth. While my story may be insignificant in the grand scheme of things, I hope that this letter to my younger coaching self can provide career and emotional clarity and support for any young coach seeking it.
Dear 20-year-old Brian,
When you walk off the field tomorrow, your playing career will be over. You are not aware of this yet, but the realization will set in soon. You’ve become frustrated and disillusioned with your playing career and you are finding it increasingly difficult to commit yourself to a sport and program that, up to this point, has not given you as much as you’ve given it. Your emotions are getting the best of you. You aren’t seeing the big picture. What you do not realize is that this program and sport have profoundly changed your life and you will have a difficult time separating from it. Your immaturity and naivety will tell you that you are a failure. You didn’t reach expectations and you never made a meaningful impact. What happens to you in the next month will fundamentally alter your life and career course. You will never be the same.
It is May 2009 and your sophomore football season is about to conclude at Gustavus Adolphus College. You are embarking on a third position switch in three years. You are learning a new system, from a new coaching staff, that is demanding a lot from you. As you walk off the field after that final spring practice, you tell yourself that this is probably it. “I’ll give it one more shot this summer. I’ll work out twice as hard as I ever have and I will come back in the fall and prove the coaches wrong. They don’t know what I can offer (yes they do). I just haven’t had a fair chance yet (you absolutely have, but you are to naive to realize it).” These are the thoughts dominating your brain as you enter the summer of your junior year. A month into the summer, you will experience an injury at a summer job. The injury is relatively insignificant, but it does leave you laid up for a couple of weeks and it gives you a chance to reflect. During this time, you realize the road ahead of you. Not only do you have to recover from this injury, you also have to make up for the time you’ve lost committing to the strength and conditioning program your coaches have assigned you. The task looks daunting and you have become exhausted and distressed. You decide it “makes sense” to hang it up. You have a built in excuse to explain to your family and friends (i.e. that injury has ended your career) and you now will have more time to get the “college experience” and dedicate yourselves to your coursework.
As you finalize your decision, you won’t be able to let it go. You know you have to inform the coaches of your decision, but there is a sense of guilt and sadness in your heart. You’re still a competitor and you feel like you still have something to contribute. You just don’t know how you can do that yet. You will find yourself drawn to the program like never before, but not in the same role or capacity that you once did. You will be reading books from John Wooden and watching the numerous college football preview shows on television. You will hear the stories of coaches and the impact they have had on the programs and individuals they have worked with. The joy in their stories and the fulfillment they feel will attract you. You will come to the realization that you want to be a coach. It is the best of both worlds, you tell yourself. You can’t bring yourself to call the head coach or talk to him in person (a mistake that you will regret) to let him know of your decision to quit playing. Instead, you email him. You notify him of your decision and inquire if he would be willing to let you join the coaching staff as a volunteer student assistant. You will wait no more than 15 minutes and then have a response that communicates excitement and eagerness from the head coach regarding your inquiry to coach. You will be working with the wide receivers and will also serve as a coordinator on the Junior Varsity team. You have just been given an opportunity of a lifetime by a man who will become one of your biggest mentors, role models, and advocates. The greatest experience of your life has officially begun.
You will serve as a student coach for two years at Gustavus. During that time, you will develop lifelong friendships and will have the privilege to work for a phenomenal coaching staff. Through staff meetings, film sessions, coaching clinics, and practice, you will begin to develop a coaching philosophy built on humility, service, and trust. You will also become infatuated with the spread offense, an infatuation that will only grow as the years progress. After two years of serving as a student coach, the head coach will approach you with an opportunity to become a position coach coaching the wide receivers. You will happily accept, but you have little clue as to how unprepared you are for the upcoming experience.
You know the drills and you know the techniques, but you don’t know how to coach your peers. You have been entrusted with coaching athletes that were once former teammates; teammates who are one, two, or three years younger than you. The job demands that you hold your players accountable and, when necessary, punish/correct them for their mistakes. The thought makes you uncomfortable. You think you are ready for this, but you aren’t yet. Instead of assuming you know everything, rely on the experienced coaches around you. Ask them questions about situations and techniques that you are unfamiliar with. They won’t think any less of you and you will learn so much from them. Let them help you become the best version of yourself that you can be. Trust their judgment and words, even in times of adversity. They have been placed in their respective positions for a reason. Ensure that your actions and words always align with their vision and culture, for that will help build the necessary components for a successful, cohesive program. Remember that it is okay to appear human to your players. It is okay to make mistakes and it is okay not to know everything. However, acting like you are error free, in an attempt to save-face in front of your players, will only garner resentment and mistrust towards you. Be honest with them and, most importantly, learn from them. They often can be your best teachers.
The confidence you will gain from that one year as a position coach will leave you believing you can conquer the coaching world. Don’t buy into your own hype. Although you have completed your degree as a secondary educator, you will believe that your future is destined for college football. You will reach out to any and every major football program. You will have countless email exchanges and several phone conversations related to your coaching inquiries. Some will sound intriguing to you, but few will sound realistic. You are recently engaged to your high school sweetheart and love of your life and now have a future wife and family to consider. You will continue to apply for teaching jobs while applying for coaching jobs across the nation. As the summer of 2012 goes on, you become (yet again) frustrated and disillusioned.
“Why can’t I get a teaching or coaching job? Why won’t anyone take a chance on me? I am a diamond in the rough for whomever gives me the opportunity and for those who don’t, I will let my successes instill a feeling of regret on what could have been.” You will tell yourselves these things, but the reality is that you have zero and I mean ZERO equity in either profession. You have thrived in a structured environment (both coaching and teaching) in large part due to the people around you. They are some of the highest quality individuals you will ever meet, yet you think your success has more to do with your own talent and actions. I challenge you to resist believing in these fallacies and instead, thank those who have helped you get to where you are and be thankful for the opportunity you have had to work with them. They are the reason you are where you are (along with God, your parents, friends, and family). Lean on these people during these difficult months. They haven’t left you and they still support you. All you must do is ask.
A phone call on a humid summer night in July will break you out of your trance and will ignite your journey towards its ultimate destination. On the end of the phone will be the superintendent of Redwood Valley High School. He will become one of the most loyal administrators you will ever meet and he will help mold you into the leader, teacher, and coach that you will one day become. He will offer you a teaching job and a position on the school’s football staff. Do not hesitate; take the job. There you will meet several coaches and players that will have a profound impact on your life. Your head coach and defensive coordinator will become your role models for the next three years and beyond. Observing how they balance their life, spirituality, family, and teaching/coaching career will give you invaluable insight on what it takes to be successful in all aspects of life. Although you will be shy and hesitant, allow yourself to be yourself around them. They will come to value you for who you are, not what you know. Fear not what you cannot do, for they will help correct your mistakes and improve your weaknesses. They will humble you at times, challenge you at others, and frustrate you more times than you can imagine. They will teach you the intricacies of flexbone-option football (despite your undying commitment/fascination with the spread offense), defensive schemes and responsibilities, proper blocking technique, program building strategies, player management, and so much more. Learn from these opportunities. Don’t confuse anger and adversity with opportunities to learn.
You will grow impatient in Redwood. You will believe that you are ready to handle a larger role than the one given to you. You will also begin to feel unsupported, lost, and hopeless. Stop pitying yourself. You have become ungrateful and distracted from the purpose of what you were meant to do. Your values have become clouded. You have since been married, but the demands of your job have left you away from your wife more than you’d like. At times, you will feel unconnected from her and you will carry the burden of that with you to work. This is of your own doing and your own actions. Talk with her. She is one of the most kind, caring, and loving individuals you will ever find. She is your greatest support system and your biggest advocate. She has the answers to many of your problems; don’t be too proud to ask her for help. Your relationships with the coaches you admired will become strained, for no other reason than your own selfishness and immaturity. Be thankful for the opportunity you have in front of you. You will likely never meet someone as genuine and impactful as the coaches on that staff. You will miss them dearly once you leave. Why ruin this special opportunity with personal greed? Unfortunately, you will be too stubborn to realize this.
You will once again look for bigger and better opportunities. You will be presented with an opportunity to serve as a position coach in a larger district in a larger city. The opportunity will be extremely attractive. The head coach will tell you that you will be on the fast track to a coordinator position, a goal you have wanted to achieve following your brief experience with it in Redwood. It will be music to your ears. Unfortunately, there will be no teaching job to go along with it. That won’t deter you. However, you will soon realize that this is not your decision to make. Not only are you impacting your own life, but you are also impacting that of your wife and family. Listen to her. Listen to her concerns, her feelings, her beliefs on the matter. These things will help bring you out of the haze that is clouding your judgement; a haze that you have created for yourself. She knows what is best for you and your family, which is more important than any coaching job. Your faith and family will always be there for you and it is at this time that you will finally decide to begin to repay them for all that they have done for you. You will be presented with an opportunity to move back to the area you grew up in: Fairmont. Both you and your wife will have teaching jobs in this district and you will be nearby your family members. The head football coach will also offer you a job as a freshman coach. While that seems far from what you desire, you need to take this job. The circumstances are so much different now and you don’t realize the opportunity that has just been presented to you.
Unlike previous endeavors, you have finally got your mind and values right. It has taken time, effort, and reflection to get here, but it has finally happened. While you should never be content with where you are in life (both spiritually, professionally, and personally), you should be appreciative and thankful for what you have become. Now that you have your values in line, it should come as no surprise that good things will begin to happen to you. While you know being a freshman coach is not your ultimate goal, you embrace your role. You commit yourself to the program and players like never before, inserting the values you learned from the coaches at Gustavus and Redwood, worrying more about the players’ experience and well-being over your own individual success, and you begin building relationships with players you will one day coach on the varsity level. Although your season may not be as successful as you would have liked, your persistence and hard work will payoff with a promotion to the junior varsity. The following season you will once again immerse yourself into the program, committing to the school, community, and players year-round, while remaining committed to the things you value most in your life: faith and family. You have placed these things at a premium in your life and your actions have not strayed from this. Your successes are directly correlated to your commitment and efforts both personally and professionally.
While in Fairmont, you will be part of a special coaching staff. The coaches will be a bit older than you, but they will be experienced, helpful, and welcoming. You will learn from and admire the preparation of the offensive and defensive coordinators. You will learn from the program building and decision making of the head coach. All of these men will, yet again, serve as great role models in all of their endeavors. They will be husbands, fathers, coaches, teachers, friends, and so many other countless roles. They will show balance in their lives and their selflessness will serve as a daily reminder of the values that you cherish in your own life. Football wise, you will be coaching in the spread offense you’ve always dreamed about. You will be entrusted with coaching the quarterback, a quarterback who will be one of the most memorable, talented, and resilient players you will ever meet. He will one day lead you to the state tournament, but it will take years of growth and heartbreak before that will happen. The program will come up short in back to back section finals, but you will learn from both of these instances. The coaching staff will improve the training and schemes to eliminate the errors that had been made in the past. And just when you least expect it, it’ll finally happen. You’ll be asked to take over as offensive coordinator and play-caller. A goal you had been chasing for so long will come to fruition. Although you will miss the outgoing coordinator, he will become a great mentor for you to lean on during your years as a play-caller. He has much to teach you; listen to him.
You will reach the state tournament in your first year as offensive coordinator. Your quarterback will have one of the greatest seasons in program history from a statistical standpoint. Things will be going better than you could have ever imagined. The reason for this: balance. You will be balanced in your life. Your job, faith, family, and friends will receive the attention and commitment they deserve. You will be seeking no shortcuts. You will not be looking for “the next job” or “the next title”. You will live in the moment. You will be thankful. You will be humbled, but you must remain aware. Remember that the successes you are experiencing are a direct result of the efforts of many coaches, players, parents, teachers, school personnel, and community members. They all play a vital role in the overall success of the program. Do not buy into the success or your own hype. Remain committed to building on the values that you hold dear in your life and within your football program. If you do this, everything else will take care of itself.
I know this letter has been longer than you expected. Heck, I didn’t think I had this big of a story to tell; but I ask you to learn from me. Don’t repeat the mistakes of your past. Be aware of the recipe of success in life. If you commit to balance in your faith, family, friends, and profession, success will find its way into your football career as well. It may not come in the form of wins, state appearances, statistical records, or championships, but it will come in the form of meaningful, lifelong relationships and memories. When it is all said and done, those are the things that will matter most in your coaching career anyway.
Your older self