No game ever invented is as important as the kids we are teaching how to play
By George Valadie
The first time I was asked to coach young kids, I was a young kid myself.
I was 9 years old, and half the neighborhood, including the four of us, routinely played in the backyard of family friends. They had six of their own, so we could always get up a good game of something.
Sometimes we kicked a ball; sometimes we kicked a can.
When their oldest son turned 6, his dad volunteered to coach T-ball at the local athletic complex. I’d never played T-ball, in fact my 9-year-old resume included but one entry—“has played one year of kid-pitch baseball.”
I wasn’t any good but had learned the basics of the game. Still, his dad asked me to be an “assistant.” A proud moment for me, but as I reflect back, I’m pretty sure it meant, “Can you help carry the bats, balls, and this tee?”
Though I have no memory of any, my guess is there were six other dads out there, too, but it felt like just me and Coach teaching the grand old game to the all-stars of the future.
It was a dozen years before I was to coach again as a first-year teacher at my high school alma mater. The job offer came with the assignment of coaching ninth-grade boys during their football, basketball, and baseball seasons (adding two more sports to the list of those at which I hadn’t excelled but knew the rules.)
Winter was over, and baseball was next on the calendar when a female student stopped me in the hall one day and said with a bit of a question in her voice, “I hear you’re going to coach our volleyball team?”
News I had yet to hear.
Several days later, a different girl asked the same question followed by another then another. My coaching colleagues dismissed the idea but suggested laying low just in case.
But being a naïve rookie, I walked into the principal’s office and asked, “You had said you wanted me to coach baseball, but I’ve had a bunch of girls tell me I was gonna be their volleyball coach. I thought I’d just check?”
“Well, what would you think about that?”
“I have to be honest with you, I’ve never coached girls, and I think this is the far more important point: I’ve never even seen a volleyball match. Not a real one. Not ever.”
What followed was not the last time he ever said to me, “Well, I’d appreciate it if you would. You’ll be great.”
“Thank you?” is what came out though I had a bit of a question in my voice as well.
Doing what I thought varsity coaches were supposed to do, I scheduled an after-school meeting for anyone interested. Sixty teenage girls showed up. Six-zero. 60.
In an effort to pare down to the 12 uniforms I’d been handed, I scheduled two Saturday-morning tryouts with me trying to decide who had the skills I didn’t even know they needed.
I’m pretty sure there are 48 women out there in the world somewhere to whom I still owe an apology.
Fast forward almost 50 more years, and yesterday we had the first practice of my granddaughter’s fourth-/fifth-grade school volleyball team.
Eighteen of the cutest little girls you’ll ever see.
They all came streaming into the gym just five minutes before practice and promptly went straight to the bathroom. All of them.
When they were finally assembled, I kicked off the season with, “My name is Mr. Valadie, and I’m Emma and Brady’s grandfather. But at our house, they call me Grumpy. So how about we go with ‘Coach Grumpy?’” There was a resounding round of cheers, and off we went.
Throughout the fall that turned into winter and with spring sports approaching, my daughter had repeatedly coaxed me, “Dad, they don’t have a coach. You should volunteer.”
While waiting for anyone else to raise their hand, I pondered asking a new principal an old question, and was flooded with all sorts of memories of all sorts of coaching experiences throughout my 46-year career in schools.
There was the varsity girls basketball game in which my best player had performed uncharacteristically poorly. Afterward, I asked her, “Are you OK? You didn’t seem yourself out there tonight? Everything all right?”
“Yeah, I’m OK. Somebody else got the shorts I always wear, and nothing felt right.”
Well of course not.
A mom of another basketball player was irritated and set up a conference with me and the principal during which she leveled the accusation: “He’s prejudiced against short people!”
For the record, I was not, nor did we have any tall girls on our team to be prejudiced for.
There have been good teams and bad. Fun locker rooms and sad ones. Good players and ones I failed to coach well enough.
I could recall the many days I took it way too seriously and hollered way too much. More apologies I owe.
But there was also the young freshman football player who’d been standing on the sideline next to me during our first game of the season. He had never played the sport before, so he hadn’t yet made it to my first line of subs.
But the game was well in hand, and time was winding down when I turned to him and offhandedly asked, “OK, Preston. You ready to get in there, buddy?”
With what can only be described as pure terror in his eyes, he replied, “No, I don’t think so. Maybe next game?”
It took a mix of coaxing and reassuring, but he got himself out there. His smile at game’s end was better than any victory.
Sadly though, there are far too many coaches who forget what and who it’s supposed to be about. The most recent embarrassment—and there are far more than there should be—came in Virginia when a head basketball coach and his young-looking assistant conspired to have the assistant wear a student jersey and actually play in a junior varsity game.
My off-the-cuff reaction was, “A JV game?!?!” But then it dawned on me that two adults—not one rogue nut—but two rogue nuts had hatched, thought about, and ultimately decided to follow through with such nonsense. No game ever invented is that important.
But the kids we are teaching are.
The game of volleyball has evolved in the years since my unexpected introduction way back when but not so much that you can play 18 at once. Six is all you can get in at one time. But we’re not cutting anybody—not this time. We’re just gonna learn what we can, have fun doing it, and enjoy the craziness.
After yesterday’s first practice, I reached out to a friend and successful high school coach, “The whole time I was wondering what you’d have thought if you had seen that chaos.”
He texted back, “I taught elementary school once . . . it was chaos just lining up for lunch.”
“Can I get a drink of water?”
“Can I go to the bathroom?”
Eighteen girls bouncing 18 balls for 75 minutes. Well . . . minus the group time in the bathroom.
And there was the one young fifth-grader who probably should have been the coach, “Sir, if you’ll call the office tomorrow and ask them to dismiss the volleyball team right after announcements, we’ll all get here sooner.”
Ah! Thanks for the tip.
I’m even more excited now. I mean, what coach doesn’t need a good assistant?
Dear God—You created the little boogers, so we don’t have to tell you how much children need a positive outlet. Or how desperately they need great mentors. Please help the good ones come forward; please help me be one. Amen.
George Valadie is a parishioner at St. Stephen Church in Chattanooga.