April 9, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Why We Coach (Spoiler: It’s Not for the Trophy)

The below has been updated from its original publishing in 2015.

As we prepare to start the 2023 season, we are reminded of a message frequently reinforced to the coaches in YYL (Yavneh Youth League), a shomer Shabbat softball league that serves approximately 300 elementary school age children and their families from across 15 schools and 17 towns in the area. In March 2015, coaches from among the 28 YYL teams gathered for the annual coaches meeting, to talk about plans for the upcoming season. The below is an excerpt of that meeting, shared in the hope that the message improves the experience for children in all recreational leagues:

The administrators of YYL started getting together in November of 2014 to plan out this year’s season. Steve Wechsler, David Markowitz, John Lofstock, Jenny Goldstein, Michael Berman and I have been working hard to get things ready. Most of the hard planning is done and we are well prepared to start another great season for all of our families. But we are only the “back office” support staff. You, the coaches, are the front office professionals, the day-to-day face of the league, so whether this season will actually be a great one or not is really dependent on each of you. But even that is not quite true, because there is not just a single great season to be had. There are hundreds of seasons in the making.

For some children, this YYL season will be great. There will be spectacular plays made, game winning RBIs, clutch pitching performances and game saving catches. Most will have fun, but I also know that there will also be some children, many new to the league, that will start this season not believing in themselves. They will think they have nothing to contribute, and fear disappointing their teammates. I’ve coached players like that and I bet you have too.

None of the league administrators’ combined 18 children remain in the YYL divisions, so what keeps us involved? There is a reason why John inventories, packs and lugs heavy equipment across Bergen County; why Jenny spends every Sunday morning teaching over 75 kids the basics of the sport; why Michael runs training sessions with our high school age umpires in his dining room year after year; why Steve spends his nights planning out a game schedule that successfully navigates any conflicts; why I spend the hours when none of my kids will even take a single swing in YYL this year. Why do we build this league from nearly the ground up every single season and why have we stayed with it well past (most of) our primes?

Surprisingly, the answer is not because we just love to watch grade school kids play softball. It’s entertaining at times, but there are much easier and enjoyable ways to spend Sunday mornings and late nights in between. Maybe even with our own families..

It is because we know that there is something much bigger underneath it all.

We stay with YYL because we believe, we know, that every child can grow from the experience of being part of a team. We do it because we believe that we can perennially build an environment where children are exposed to coaches who care more about them than they do about winning, and the modeling of YYL coaches will positively impact our players.

These are children who think that they stink at sports and therefore cannot contribute to their team’s success. And maybe, they aren’t all that great at softball. I promise you that that child will be on the field this season. Don’t overlook them—or worse even, just write them off.

Imagine what’s possible if you carved out a few minutes before or after a game. With your guidance, encouragement and coaching, they might catch a pop up this year in an important spot with all eyes on them. They might somehow put the ball in play at a key time and move that winning run into scoring position. And if God really smiles on them, they might get a high five from their teammates because they “did it.”

And even if they don’t have those magic moments, the words of encouragement that come from you, the support that you show—and that you inspire your team to show towards all of their teammates—will have an impact.

That child will be changed, maybe imperceptibly. It might not show itself until years later, when he is faced with another challenge. Maybe she will remember her coach believing in her at a time she did not believe in herself, or that her coach had the other kids cheering for her every single time up, and told her after each and every strikeout that she would get ‘em next time. And that through her coach’s tone, body language and eye contact, she knew that those weren’t just empty words.

Maybe he learned that practice might not always make perfect, but it eventually pays off. Maybe when the season is over, and he goes to camp, he won’t hide from sports, because he knows that even he has something to contribute. And maybe she will approach life with just a drop more confidence. And maybe he will take what he learned from you on a Sunday morning in Paramus in 2023 and pay that forward as a camp counselor, or when she is a parent herself needing to inspire her own little girl to do her best.

You, our YYL coaches, have the most awesome opportunity; every chance to encourage. You can show a child that you believe in them when you don’t even “have to.”

One of the luxuries I have as commissioner, and probably what makes the hours most worthwhile, is the emails I get that share how much the opportunity to play ball in our league means to some kids. I get them nearly every year, stories about how a shy child has come out of her shell more each week; about how YYL is what the child looked forward to all year and has been the source of such growth for him. These messages are not in my imagination.

No doubt, some of the kids in our league are great players. Amazing young athletes doing incredible things on our fields that will make us all yearn for instant replay. The great players need good coaching too. But some players are not great—so they need you to be great. A coach came up to me a few days ago and told me that he expected to have a particular player, a boy whose needs are more “special” than most, assigned to his team again this year. It was not a statement made with resignation in his voice, but with excitement. He coached the boy last year and saw the impact he could have with this child and wanted an opportunity to further that relationship. How can the love in that request possibly be quantified? How can we not all try to tap into that part of ourselves?

I know most coaches are mostly coaching to share this unique experience with their children, as I did. I know some are coaching because I asked you to please coach again this year—thank you. The path to “coach” is no longer relevant. All that matters is what is done with that title. All that matters is that once or twice when the season gets going, each coach realizes the immense opportunity you have; the incredible chance to be that coach who makes a difference; to be someone who not only recognizes the immeasurable power of a well timed word of encouragement but has the wisdom and heart to apply it where it is needed most.

Come to my house and listen to my children talk with their friends about their YYL coaches over the years. Hear them chat about their elementary school coaches, and the coaches of the high school teams they play on now. Invariably, the focus will turn to the good and bad they’ve witnessed. What their coach said to the team after a loss, or how that coach treated the weaker players on the team vs. the stronger ones. If you’ve ever been to a YYL coaches meeting, then you’ve heard me say it: When they become young adults most players will not remember their records, the championship winners or even the names of the teams they were on. But they will vividly remember how their coaches conducted themselves on the field, or encouraged the children who were unsure if they were good enough. As coaches, you have the most important role in this league, and frankly the biggest opportunity. How you interact with the children on your squad will be the only 2023 YYL legacy you leave behind. I envy you while I beg you. Use the incredible opportunity you have this year to be the coach that you want to be remembered as. Because one way or the other, you will be remembered.

We have made the teams and schedules, provided the fields, the balls and the umpires. Most of what the administrators can do from here on in involves praying for nice weather. But unless we are coaching, we cannot do what you can. You can impact a child this spring in a way that can change him or her for the rest of their life. That girl or boy is out there. They are waiting for you. I promise you.

So we play games. We compete. There are rules and scores are kept. Some teams will win their division championship, and most will not. But if even one of us thinks for a minute that our impact this spring will be measured only in runs, outs and hits, then we are playing the wrong game.

With admiration for our coaches, and confidence that a great season can be had by all: Howard Eisenstadter and the Administrators of Yavneh Youth League: Michael Berman, Jenny Goldstein, John Lofstock, Steve Wechsler and David Markowitz.

By Howard Eisenstadter

 

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