The Best Seat in the House!

Love of the Game:

Baseball was my first love! For as long as I can remember, I desired to watch baseball at all levels. When the time came for me to learn how to play, I was eager to grab my glove and get out in the backyard and throw the ball around. Unfortunately for me, I should have learned how to catch the ball first! During an early “catch” session with my father, I attempted to catch a baseball with the palm of my glove facing toward the sky and the ball bounced off the palm of my glove and hit me in the eye. There was good and bad in this. The bad was that I had a pretty nasty looking black eye where the ball struck me. The good was that I learned a valuable lesson at a very young age. The lesson? The baseball is hard and my face is harder so, while there may be a bruise where the baseball made contact with my skin, I would eventually heal and be able to play again. I took this lesson into my first ever little league baseball game at the age of 9. The very first pitch that I ever saw in a live baseball game struck me square in the ribs which knocked the breath out of me and I collapsed to the ground writhing in pain and wondering if I would ever breathe again. Luckily for me the baseball universe decided that it still wanted me as an esteemed member of its club and I rose to my feet and with tears streaming down my face, I walked to first base. I have been hit with a baseball many times during baseball games since that day when I was first starting and I am happy to say that I still have all of my parts and still love the game!

Mom, Dad, may I have $10, please:

At times, Growing up in a family of 5 we did not have a lot of extra money and since my father was the only source of income, we did not always get money when we asked for it. I had been delivering the afternoon paper for some spending money for a few years and I desired to have more money. During this time, I was spending a lot of time at the baseball fields in the spring and summer. I remember being low on funds from time to time and asking my parents if I could “borrow” some money so that I could go out with my friends to a high school football game, the Dairy Queen ™ or to a movie. Many times my parents would give me some money and while that was great, my parents started to ask me about the money that I was saving from doing my paper deliveries. Well, as a teenage with a desire to do what I wanted to do, I was spending that money faster than I was making it and I needed a new plan to gain some “coin”. With a love of baseball and a desire to have some more spending cash, I hiked up to the community center one day and went into the office. There was a man sitting there and I talked with him for a little while and not surprisingly, he knew my dad and he also knew me from my time as a baseball player in little league. He asked me if I would like to umpire some little league baseball games. I was only 15 and I did not know that I was allowed to umpire. I asked him to tell me a little bit more about this opportunity and he said that it would be 2 nights a week and 2 games per night and that the pay would be $5 per game. I quickly did the math in my head and “BINGO”, $20 extra for me, per week!!!! “Yes Sir!”, I said. Since he knew me and that I was still playing baseball he asked me what days my baseball games were on and I told him. We came up with a schedule that would work for both of us and he informed me that I would not need to buy any equipment as the league supplied it and that I would be given an t-shirt and hat to wear while I was umpiring. He said that there would be a class on consecutive Saturday mornings and that I needed to attend both classes in order to be able to umpire. I was in!!!

Baseball – Every Day:

After taking the classes, I was ready to take to the field with confidence and new knowledge about umpiring. I ended up watching the baseball game of the week that Saturday before my first scheduled umpiring “gig” and behind the plate was Dutch Rennert1. I watched in amazement as he called balls and strikes with a boisterous exuberance and I wanted to be an umpire just like him! I showed up for my first assigned game and was teamed up with another teenager who was 4 years older than me. I knew who he was and was excited to be able to be an umpire on the same field as him. I was the base umpire for my first 2 games and I watched my partner call balls and strikes in his own unique way. When he called balls and strikes everyone at the game knew what the call was. He was good and I realized that I needed to learn a lot more. My first call was an easy one! A ground ball was hit to the first baseman and he scooped up the bounding ball and stepped on first base, I raised my right fist and said; “Out!” My umpiring career was off to a good start. After the second game, I left the field with my partner and he gave me some feedback that was helpful by letting me know that being confident about my calls was important and showed everyone at the game that I knew what I was doing on the field. I have continued to use this advice throughout my life on and off the baseball field.

The Best View of the Field:

The day came when I was assigned to umpire the plate for the first time and to say that I was nervous was an understatement! Calling balls and strikes during a baseball game at any level I have come to learn is one of the toughest things that I have ever experienced. One of the things that I learned during my classes is that the home plate umpire needs to watch the ball leave the pitcher’s hand and follow the ball as it crosses the plate paying close attention to whether the ball crosses the plate in the batter’s strike zone2. In addition, the plate umpire needs to be aware of the batter to see whether the batter swings, is hit by the pitch, and remains in the box with both feet while striking the ball. One last thing that the home plate umpire needs to look for is whether the catcher catches the ball prior to it hitting the ground. This is vitally important on the third strike or when a base runner is attempting to steal a base and the pitched ball is foul tipped. As a 15 year old, I was just excited about calling balls and strikes. I did make it through my first games as the home plate umpire and I made a lot of mistakes however, I was confident in my calls and I left the field to the fans thanking me for being the umpire and doing a nice job. This made me feel good about what I had done and I wanted to get some more feedback. My partner was the same teenager that I had worked with before and he gave me some great advice, again. One of the things that he talked to me about was that the strike zone for each batter changes based on their height and to step back before each batter steps up to the plate and let the batter get into the batter’s box and into their batting stance prior to me taking my position behind the catcher. He let me know that this will give me a chance to get a better idea of the strike zone for that batter and also let me reset myself from the previous batter. I have used this advice throughout my 30+ years of umpiring. The second thing that I learned a little later on during my umpiring career was that the home plate umpire has the best view on the baseball field and is in the only position to see every athlete and other participant on the field. The final and most important thing that I have learned over my time officiating baseball games is that it is a blessing to be able to participate in a game that I truly love so, cherish every game. These lessons have helped me to understand that the umpires of baseball games definitely have the “best seat in the house”.

1 – Wikipedia: Dutch Rennert

2 – Wikipedia: Baseball Strike Zone

Early Lessons – It’s a Game, make it Fun!

It’s a Game, make it FUN:

Well, here it is folks, the last in my “Early Lessons” series of posts. The 10th post in this series will focus on what I feel is the #1 most important lesson that I have learned, it’s a game, make it fun! I had the honor of being able to attend a seminar by John O’Sullivan1 just prior to the start of a season one year. During the seminar, I learned how young athletes count on the love and support of their families and friends to help them work through obstacles and realize their gifts. Support is also needed during their time playing. I was also able to process how undue pressure put on young athletes can have negative effects on their attitude about sports and desire to continue to play. My most important take away from what I heard was that I could help young athletes understand that the game is about having fun and their personal growth. Attending and learning from this seminar helped me to realize that the most important thing that anyone can say to a young athlete after a game is, “I loved watching you play today!”

Ho-Ho’s? Really!?:

This is what fun is all about! I can count on 1 hand the number of times a player has come up to me following a game and let me know that they were happy that we won or sad that we lost the game. What I cannot count are the times when players have asked me in the middle of a game about what we were having for snack after the game was over. For those of you who want more information on this, he we go. Each youth sports team that I have been involved with has had at least one parent who organized a snack schedule. A snack schedule is distributed among the parents of the players on the team and each parent signs up to bring at least one drink or one snack for every player on a given game day for, the team to enjoy after the game has ended. FYI: most parents also bring enough for the coaches which in some way explains why I am no longer able to run like a cheetah! There was one game that I can vividly remember one of the players circling around a cooler that was sitting close to our sideline. He had a smile on his face and was not really interested in what was going on during the game. Early in the second half of the game, I called out the player’s name in order to have him go in and play. I looked around as he did not answer my call for him. After I put in another player I started to look around for him and found him kneeling down next to the cooler. I asked him what he was doing and he looked up at me. I did not need for him to answer me because, in his left hand was a Ho-Ho, in his right hand was a Ho-Ho and on his face was what was left of what appeared to be several Ho-Ho’s2. I could only chuckle and walk back towards the other players as his Mom came by and started to clean him up.

Under the Lights:

As the assistant coaches and I were preparing our team for a game one week back in 1991, we got word from our league that our game was going to be postponed or cancelled due to a scheduling conflict. The coaches and players were upset. One of my assistant coaches suggested that we ask the Commissioner of the league if we would be able to play the game under the lights since, the park we played at had lights. The Commissioner was initially against it until, my assistant coach contacted the opposing team’s coach and that coach also approached the Commissioner. There was no way that the Commissioner could say “No”. The players and coaches had so much fun that week preparing to play under the lights on a “special” edition of “Monday Night Football3“! We walked onto the field that night with our helmets gleaning and humming the theme from Monday Night Football. This was one of those times when the players on the team really got into the atmosphere and I saw joy on the players before, during and after the game! A second example of pure fun on the football field happened at the end of my first year of coaching youth football. The team that I was coaching was talented and worked hard and we went through the season with only 1 loss on our record. We won both of our playoff games and made it to the championship game. Interestingly enough, we played in the championship game that year against a team that had handed us our only loss beating us by a score of 18-6. It turned out that we would be the only team to score on that team during that season. From the opening kickoff to the final ticks off the game clock, we were dominated in every way and ended up losing without scoring a single point. It didn’t matter to us what the final score was because we had planned to have fun and enjoy the day. The picture at the top of this post was taken at the end of that game and just 10 seconds after we shook hands with the coaches and players from the opposing team, we were celebrating like we were about to receive the Lombardi Trophy4.” It was all about letting the players, coaches and families celebrate the fun that they all had during that season and showing them that it really was just a game. Every player from my first year of coaching came back and played on the team during my second year. To me, that is success!

1John O’Sullivan – Changing the Game
2Ho-Ho’s – Hostess Ho-Hos
3Monday Night Football – Monday Night Football
4Vince Lombardi Trophy- Vince Lombardi Trophy

Early Lessons – Trust is a Must

Do Your Job!:

When I was a young athlete, I had a number of coaches teach what makes a team and an individual successful. One of the standout themes and lessons that I learned from my coaches was, “if you concentrate on the job that you are supposed to be doing and trust that your teammates will do their job, you should have nothing to worry about.” Unfortunately for me, I did not learn that lesson fully until I was playing baseball in college and I had an opportunity to spend a year on the bench with a great coach and an amazing teacher, after I had season ending shoulder surgery! That one year helped me to learn that as a coach, all you have to do is prepare, teach, listen, teach, learn, teach and teach some more. I was also taught that the players that you are coaching will do what you are teaching them if, the manner in which you are teaching and in the re-enforcement that you are giving to them, is consistent and respectful.

Early on -> doing things my way:

Looking back on my time spent on the field as a competitor, I realize now why I did not have more success than I did. The main reason was that I wanted to show off my abilities and cover for my teammates’ shortcomings. In taking this approach, I took away from my ability to become a better teammate and denied some of my teammates the chance of getting better at fielding, throwing and hitting. One example of me not doing my job and at the same time not trusting my teammates was when I was playing Little League (LL) baseball. When I was 12 years old and in my last year of LL, I was considered by most coaches and players to have one of the strongest arms in the league and I would often bait runners into trying for another base in the hopes that they would, and then I would easily throw them out. It became so that very few players in the league would even attempt to get to the next base if, I had the ball in my hand. On one occasion I was playing right field and in center field was a player who was younger and was working on becoming a better fielder. There was a fly ball that was hit right at the center fielder and I sprinted from my right field spot all the way to center field, caught the ball almost out of the center fielder’s glove and then threw a one hop strike to home plate to cut down the runner trying to score. I was so excited and so were my teammates. At the end of that season an all-star team was chosen to represent the county in the LL tournament and I was not selected for the team. I now know why and no one has ever had to tell me why. It was painful not to be selected to the all-star team and I have learned much from my selfish and ultra-competitive ways throughout the years and next, I will share a story about a time when I was coaching where I reversed the misfortune in my youth and helped a team trust one another and just, “do their job!”

He’s My Teammate!:

When I was coaching my son in youth football, I started to preach the phrase, “Do Your Job!” It was something that I felt would bring the team together and it gave every player on the team a sense that they were being relied upon. This was evident in a game late in the year during the 6th season that I was coaching my son. I was able to spend 7 years coaching my oldest son and they were the best years that I have ever had coaching! We were fighting to make the playoffs and in the next to the last regular season game, we were playing a team with only 1 loss on the season. During the practices leading up to the game, I worked exclusively with the offensive line. My son played left guard. I was trying to teach the players how to zone block and the importance of staying in their zone in order to pick up any defensive player who may come into their zone. Basically, zone blocking is, each player on the offensive line is assigned an area. The area is usually pretty small and is manageable for the player at the youth level. Zone blocking also stresses that the player is responsible for their area even if there is no one coming at them immediately after the ball is snapped. Now, if no defensive player comes into an area after a couple of seconds then the lineman in that area is free to help out in other areas where help is needed. That is what I was teaching the players. During practice and when we were lining up against the kids who played defense, our offensive linemen were not grasping the concept of just take care of your zone. In other words, do “your” job. They were reminding me of that show-off 12 year old right fielder. One of the things that they were doing was leaving their area because the player that they were supposed to block was just standing and not moving and as they told me, “I’m bored Coach!” Another thing that were doing was blocking someone not in their “zone” because that is not where the running back was going to be going and so, they would run to where the running back was going and try to block someone there. On a few of those occasions, a defensive player would tackle the running back from behind and you guessed it, coming from the area that the lineman had just left. On the last day of practice that week I decided to bring a can of spray paint with me and I painted very large circles around the offensive linemen’s areas and let them know that if any of them left “their” circle that, the entire line would be running gassers at the end of practice. What I witnessed was the linemen helping one another stay in their circles and as I called out the plays and the linemen continued to position themselves in their circles, they became more verbal towards their teammates. At no time other than when directed by me or another coach, did any of those players leave their circle. Game day came and I witnessed the same thing during the contest. More on field coaching and help from each other and as a result, we had a running game that could not be stopped on that day. When the game ended and we gathered on the sideline for a post game talk, I asked the players how they felt about what they had learned and not a single one of them mentioned anything about “zone” blocking or staying in their “area”. Instead, these players looked around at each other and a few of the more talkative ones said that they had learned about how important trust was and also about why it was essential that they only concentrate on doing “their” job! Lesson learned!

*Note: A few years later, I made sure that every player on the team that I was coaching was given a shirt that read “Do Your Job” on the front. The reminder that there is nothing else to focus on when you are on the field of play than your own responsibilities. I believe it is also a pretty good life lesson.

Early Lessons – If You Aren’t Winning…

Someone to Admire:

In 2017, I had the privilege of coaching with someone that I respected deeply and admired for how he was pulling double duty as a coach and a father. It was my second year coaching with him and he had a son on our team. He was an enthusiastic coach and his primary goal on and off the field of play was to watch his son grow and mature as a athlete and person. He believed that every athlete that was on the field offered something to the team and that it was up to us as coaches, to bring that “something” out of the athlete and help them to recognize and build on their strengths. His passion and zeal for coaching and being a father sent me back to my days of being a coach to my oldest son and watching him progress through the athletic development phases from barely being able to stand with all of his football equipment on to becoming an all-star offensive lineman in youth football before playing under the lights on Friday nights. That coach taught me a lot during that year and now I will share with you a couple of stories.

Why do we practice?:

By most measuring sticks when it comes to sports, our 2017 regular season was not reflective of the talent that we had on the team. While we ended the regular season at 3 wins and 3 losses, we did earn the right to play in the playoffs and were seeded as the number 8 seed and were slated to take on the undefeated number 1 seed. The coaches and I reflected on the regular season and came to believe that we had the talent to beat the number 1 seed and move on to the second round of the playoffs. My assistant coaches and I discussed how we were going to motivate the players on the team since, they all knew about the number 1 seeded team and about the talented quarterback that they had. The other coaches and I devised a plan to take the players’ minds off the game and get them to focus on learning more about themselves and the talents that they possessed and how to work as a team. We did this during the week of practice by playing a game for the last 30 minutes of practice where the coaches would split up the players into 2 teams and they would play a football game with the offense starting at midfield and needing to score a touchdown in 4 plays or less. Now, when we split up the players we purposely put all of the players who played quarterback, running back and wide receiver on one team. There was a lot of griping and groaning from the players that played offensive line or only played defense. The first night of practice, the team with all of the “skill position” players i.e. running backs, were beaten by the linemen and defensive team by 3 touchdowns. The second night, teaching took place for the players on the team. “Why do you think that team B won the game last night?”, I asked. Immediately one of the players from the winning team said, “because they all wanted to have the ball and they didn’t play together.” Lesson learned? Well, we had an amazing practice where we focused on tackling and specifically, gang tackling which is where multiple members of the defensive team converge on the offensive player with the ball and try to tackling him, all at once. The players worked so hard and really grasped the concept of working together to tackle. Then, we played the after practice game again and guess what? The team with all of the “skill players” on it lost again and this time by 5 scores. Final night of practice for the week. It was a Thursday evening and it was chilly and the players and coaches could see their breath when they were talking and breathing. Time to be the best teachers that we could be and we saw some amazing progress during that night of practice! We focused nearly the entire practice again on tackling and this time, the players were talking with each other and before the snap we could hear players say things like, “I’ve got his hips and you take the chest while someone else get the ball!” When we finished the practice that evening, we played the game and this time. The team with the “skill players” took turns handling the football and talked with one another and they ended up winning the game 4 touchdowns to 3. The coaches watched the players teach each other and grow into a cohesive unit and we all believed that we had a great chance to overcome incredible obstacles and come out victorious on Saturday.

It was a Great lesson!:

Game day! The nice thing about playing this particular playoff game was that the team that we were playing against had no home field to play on. While we were technically designated as the visiting team since we were the lower seed, we played the game on our home field. It was an amazing fall day in October with the sun shining and the temperature hovering around 60 degrees. During warm-ups, we decided to continue to keep the focus on tackling and proper technique and talking to each other. One of the assistant coaches said something to the effect that coaches are not allowed on the field and that every player needed to be their own coach and the captains needed to keep the players focused. Quick side note here: the team that we were playing against had played 6 regular season games just like we had and they had scored 210 points in those 6 games and given up only 8 points. We as coaches never mentioned this to our players and we kept the entire focus on what our players were capable of. On the first drive of the game our opponent drove down the field and scored a touchdown and then tacked on the extra point for a 7 – 0 lead after only 3 minutes of play. Not a single player from our team walked to the sideline with their head down and in fact, as soon as they got to the sideline they suggested that we move 2 of our linebackers on defense to defensive end because those 2 players were fast and they believed that they could get to the offensive player with the ball before he would be able to get moving. Additionally, one of our defensive players mentioned that the center was snapping the football real slowly and that he could go right by him, “every time.” The coaches listened and we responded by following the suggestions of the players and adjusting the positioning of the defensive players. It worked! The opposing team did not score again in the first half and just before halftime, we caught a break and score on a beautiful pass play from the assistant’s son to one of our wide receivers. Even though we missed the extra point, the halftime score was 7 – 6 and the players on the team were excited and ran to get something to drink and then huddled around the coaches for the halftime “pep talk”. We received the second half kick-off and our receiver had a hard time picking up the ball and we started our first offensive possession of the second half on our own 10 yard line. On the first offensive play that we ran our running back fumbled the football and a player from the opposing team scooped it up and ran it into the end zone for a touchdown and a 13 – 6 lead. I heard one of the players say as he went onto the field for the extra point, “it’s okay guys, we just need to stop the extra point.” The defense came through and stuffed the extra point attempt by gang tackling the ball carrier and we were only down by 7 points. Throughout the rest of the second half, our opponent did not gain a single first down. It was an amazing effort from these young athletes and as fate would have it, we would get one last chance to tie or win the game with 2 minutes to play. We had all 3 of our timeouts left and we started the drive with a 20 yard run which put us at the opponent’s 30 yard line. The coaches were trying to stay calm and were just focusing on the next play. It was hard to do! All of the work that the players had put in and the incredible job that they were doing on that Saturday was a joy to watch! On first down, we gained 4 yards on a running play and on second down we tried to catch the defense off guard by throwing a pass. We were unsuccessful as the pass floated just about 2 yards over the receiver’s outstretched finger tips. The coaches decided to use our first timeout to make sure that the players had some water and a chance to rest. We decided on a running play and we gained a first down to the opponent’s 20 yard line. On first down we tried another pass and our receiver was wide open in the end zone but the pass never made it out of the quarterback’s hands as he was sacked and we had to use our second timeout. On second down, we ran another pass play and the pass was completed for an 8 yard gain to the 12 yard line and we used our third and final timeout of the half. It was decision time! Do we chance a running play and if our runner is tackled in bounds, the clock most likely runs down to 0:00 or do we throw the ball and get a chance on fourth down if, the pass is incomplete. We chose a running play. The choice was made based on what the players were telling us. “Coach, they have no one guarding the right side of the field and if we can block the outside linebacker then, it will be an easy touchdown.” This came from our wide receiver. “Let’s go with it and remember, if you can see their eyes then you can block them”, said one of the coaches. The snap, the hand-off to the running back and the huge hole that was opened on the right side of the field with no one deep enough to stop an easy touchdown! All of a sudden, a hand appeared from a defensive player that was being blocked and as he was lying on the ground, he grabbed the shoe of the running back and down went the ball carrier. The clock was ticking down, 10, 9, 8 and I saw the quarterback get all of the players lined up. 3, 2, 1 and then I heard a whistle. Game over! The players walked over to the sideline and some of them were in tears. They had learned so much and put what they learned into practice on that day and played a game that most of them will never forget. The team didn’t win the game however, the coaches from the opposing team shook every one of our player’s hands and when they got to us coaches, each one of them stated that we were the best team that they had played all year. The team gathered on the side lines for the final time that season and one of the players spoke up after the coaches beamed about the performance that we had just witnessed and that player said, “just remember guys, if we ain’t winning, we need to be learning.” How true!

Note: I moved on to coach in a different city after that season and stayed in touch with my assistant coaches. They were some of the best people that I have had the privilege of working with over the 3 decades and I want to thank them for meaning so much to me in my coaching career. That team went on to play in the championship game in 2018 and I made an effort to make it to the semi-final playoff game that they played in.

Early Lessons – Respect for the Game

An Unexpected Opportunity:

When I first started coaching, I had a pretty good grasp of the game of football. I did research on how to coach young athletes and studied up on how to create a well designed offensive play. I attended a lot of high school games and watched a lot of football on TV. I was able to have success in coaching by surrounding myself with other people who understood the game of football and who were able to provide some guidance on how to coach athletes to have fun and work together. There was something that was missing early on in my coaching career and I worked at finding out what that “something” was. One day while I was having the team warm-up prior to their game, someone walked up to me and asked me if I would be interested in becoming an on-field official for youth football. I did not know how to answer that question. I told the person that I would think about it and get back to them. After about a week, I contacted the person and asked him to tell me more about how to become an official and what kind of a time commitment I was being asked for. After he answered my questions he said something that struck me as odd at the time, “it will make you a better coach”, he said. I was taken aback by his comment and of course, I had to know how being an official would help to make me a better coach. I agreed to explore the possibility of becoming an official and signed up for the officials’ clinic which was one of the requirements. Little did I know at that time how much more I would come to respect the game of football by participating in the game as both a coach and an official!

Officiating and Respect:

After I attended the clinic, I was asked if I would be interested in officiating games and I said that I would be. The rule in the organization that I was coaching in was that if you were a coach at a specific age level that you would not be allowed to officiate any games at that same age level. I was assigned to officiate games of teams whose players were in middle school; 6th, 7th and 8th grade. As I took the field for my first game as an official, I was nervous and excited at the same time! I certainly wanted to do a good job after all, I was well known in the organization since I was a coach and I did not want to tarnish my good image. The game progressed and eventually ended without any demanding calls and there were no complaints from either sideline. I was asked if I would like to officiate the following week and I was eager to say yes and to get back onto the field as an official. The second week that I officiated was an eye-opening experience for me. The first game that I officiated on that day was a game played between 2 undefeated teams. The coaches were intense and outstanding at giving instruction and guidance to their players from the sideline. I paid closer attention to the coaches and players during this game and I made mental notes about how they handled the game, their opponent and the outcome. I learned a lot from how that game was played and coached. I noticed the things that I wanted to see happen when the players that I was coaching were up against adversity or made a big step forward in their game knowledge or personal growth. I gained a respect for coaches and players who displayed hard work, dedication to detail and sportsmanship. I gained this respect from a new perspective, as an official. I learned that there needs to be a mutual respect for your opponent as well as the game officials, coaches, parents and teammates in order to be a successful team. What I saw when the teams left the field was players from opposite teams sharing the experiences from the game with each other and smiling. Laughing together and talking about how nice it is going to be to enjoy the rest of the day and also, how the 2 teams were going to play again in the playoffs. I saw togetherness! I saw a bonding of young athletes over something that they had a mutual respect and love for. I learned on that second week as an official how to be a better coach. The cherry on top was when both coaches walked toward the middle of the field, embraced each other and told each other what a good game it was and then, they turned toward the officials and gave us a wave and a great big “good job sir and thank you guys!”

Paying it forward:

When I returned to the team that I was coaching, I returned much calmer and much more willing to look at things in a different way when it came to teaching these young athletes. My thinking went more to how would others view what I am doing while I am on the sidelines? Would the officials be willing to walk over to me and explain why a call was made or would they shout it over to me while standing in the middle of the field? Would my players believe the things that I was teaching them just because I was their coach or would they embrace them because they believed in me and respected me? Not everything that you do as an official during a game is easy and fun. As a matter of fact, I would say that about 25 – 30% of the conversations and calls that I have been involved in during my officiating career have been somewhat to mostly difficult. Communicating in a calm and direct manner to other officials, players and coaches and hearing what they have to say builds mutual respect. Being an official has given me an opportunity to gain a greater respect for the game of football and has blessed me with the opportunity to find ways in which I can improve upon how I coach the game just by allowing me to observe what is taking place during a game.

Early Lessons – Control Ends with a Play Called

A Coaches Mission:

When I first started coaching and my ego was bigger than the football field itself, I believed that I had the ability to make sure that every play that was called from the sideline would result in a positive outcome. This idea and way of thinking was quickly squashed as I witnessed young athletes who were still growing into their bodies and some who were still learning left from right do things that, looking back on were normal for kids their age and that make me smile now. I quickly shifted my thinking to, let’s just practice a play until we have it down and then when I call the play during a game it will go just as planned. Again, these are young athletes and when they take the field some of them are thinking more about the Twinkies, Ho-Ho’s and Fruit Punch snack that waits for them after the game than they are about what they need to do on any given play. Now I realize after years of coaching and reading books and attending coaching camps that practicing something over and over again only means that you are perfecting your practice and not necessarily your game play! Nevertheless, it was and still is my mission today as a coach to do my best to prepare the young athletes to understand what it is that they need to be doing each play and also to be a role model for them in how I go about teaching them and dealing with everything else that a coach needs to deal with. The final mission of a coach as I understand it today, is to show love, kindness, understanding and compassion towards every member of the team, equally!

When I Learned this Lesson:

Early on in my tenth season coaching youth football and after I had been on a high school coaching staff for a few years, I was coaching a youth team with the coach who had given me the opportunity to coach with him on that high school staff. My son was on the youth team as was his. The team was talented and early on we saw how much the players understood what we were teaching and more importantly, the players on the team liked each other and trusted one another. Trust is important on the football field and I believe that it is essential in order to build team unity and to be successful from play to play and game to game. Trust will be the topic in a future post! During practice we worked hard to ensure that our offensive linemen worked together in order to create running lanes for our running backs and quarterback so that the team would be able to gain positive yardage on as many plays as possible. This involved me working with each offensive linemen to ensure that they were quickly moving as soon as the ball was snapped, knew which defender they were tasked with blocking and where the running back or quarterback was supposed to be running with the ball. We had a specific play designed where the ball carrier was tasked with running the ball on the left side of the center between the left guard and left tackle. We designed the play so that the right guard would leave his spot at the snap of the ball and run through the gap between the left guard and left tackle and provide an additional blocker for the ball carrier. This was called the “pulling guard” and the play was designed to gain between 6 – 10 yards and if things went just right, could result in an even bigger gain or a long touchdown run. During a game in which we were playing a team which had not lost in 3 years, we were holding our own and knew that we would have a chance to run this play at some point. On a warm autumn afternoon in October, we set up the play. We were trailing by 3 points 18 – 15 and started with the ball on our own 25 yard line. 75 yards from taking the lead. We methodically moved the ball to the opponents 40 yard line and with time winding down decided it was time to try the “pulling guard” play. The lesson wasn’t learned with the calling of the play but rather with what happened during the play. The play was run to perfection! Every lineman quickly moved to block their counterparts on defense and the “pulling guard” flattened a linebacker as the running back raced through the gaping hole that appeared from the timely blocking and he was off! 40 yards later, we had the lead!! Or, so I thought until I saw the yellow flag lying on the field. As I stood and watched our running back standing slouched over and exhausted in the end zone, I heard the referee call “holding on the offense, ten yards from the spot of the foul. Repeat the down.” It was in that moment that I learned a valuable lesson and one that I have taught and continue to teach players today and that lesson is simple: “Once the decision has been made to call a play, all control for the outcome of that play is released from the coach and transferred to the forces on the field and in the universe. There is nothing that the coach or anyone standing on the sidelines or sitting in the stands can do to influence the outcome of that play in a legal manner and accepting the outcome of that play is all that is left to do.”

Early Lessons – No Words Needed

Coaches are Teachers:

When I watch movies about sports and I see a coach or a player yelling at another player to try and get them to do something in a different or in the “right” way, I start to reflect on the coaches that I have learned from that were quite silent in their approach to coaching. The coaches that I have looked up to and tried to emulate throughout my coaching career are the ones who have taken the time to explain to me how to get the job done, efficiently and effectively using the skills that they know that I have. I have not always been successful as a teacher during my coaching career and there were times when I raised my voice or behaved in a way that I now believe would have led no one to follow my instructions or in no way could they have learned anything from me. When I go to a sporting event and I watch a player make a mistake or even if I don’t see them make a mistake and they walk over to their coach, I usually see a coach who is teaching the player something with his arm around the player or directly looking at the player. Seeing coaches do this, helps me to remember that even at the college and professional level where the stakes are much higher than at the youth and high school level, coaches need to be great teachers in order to get their athletes to recognize what it is that they need to be doing and then to act on their instructions.

A Story about Teaching:

When I was heading into my second year of coaching high school football, the quarterback of the team made a decision based on what he was seeing on the field and the result was an interception by the defense. The quarterback walked off the field and towards the bench with his head hanging low and a look of disgust in his eyes. This was a perfect time for a teaching moment and when something like this happens to a player who is in a position where other players look to them for leadership and guidance, it is imperative that their mindset is shifted as quickly as possible from the past to the present. Since I was one of the offensive coaches, I walked over to the bench and sat down beside the quarterback with my whiteboard and dry erase markers. “Draw for me what you were seeing on that play”, I instructed the player and he did. “Now you have seen that defensive alignment, where will you throw the ball when we run that play again?” I asked him. He drew a line on the whiteboard to the receiver that he was confident would be the best option. I tapped him on his shoulder pads and said, “next time will be a big play for us!” Teaching someone in this manner helped me to understand that the player knew how to adjust their thinking and actions in order to arrive at a better outcome and also, gave him confidence that he would be able to make that better decision in the future, should he need to.

Sometimes Words are not Needed:

In my third season of coaching high school football, I started to become more involved with the varsity team and was part of the Friday night coaching staff. I would sit in the press box and was responsible for watching specific areas of the field on offense and defense and then at halftime, I would let the head coach know what I was seeing and where we may be able to have success during the second half of the game. During one Friday night home game, we were playing against a team that was pretty good and they had a player on defense who was an all-state player. He was bigger, stronger and faster than any other player on either defense and he was tenacious! In coaching terms we say that he was “a man among boys!” This player played directly over the center on defense and that position was called the nose guard, in those days. Now, the center on offense is the player responsible for snapping the ball accurately and quickly to the quarterback on every offensive play. The defensive “all-state” player was number 61 and he dominated the first half of the game. He was able to get by the center on nearly every play and disrupt any momentum of the running backs before they could even get going. On passing plays, he was in the quarterback’s face and on several occasions was able to sack the quarterback for a loss or cause an errant pass which resulted in a turnover. As I watched the first half from the press box, I started to realize that in order to slow down number 61, we would need to use 2 players from our offense. At halftime, we were down but not by much as our defense had done a great job of holding the other team’s offense to only 2 scores. I came down from the press box and walked towards the head coach. He was talking with one of the assistant coaches and they seemed to be very upset at how our center had been manhandled in the first half. We walked into the locker room where the players were getting some fruit and water and gathering around the blackboard. Yes! A blackboard! The head coach walked over to the blackboard, picked up a piece of chalk and wrote “61” in very large numbers on the board. Then, the assistant coaches started to yell at our center. Most of what was said, I believe was to try and motivate the center to find what he had in him to play at the level he was capable of playing at. As I heard the raised voices and looked at our center, I could see that he was defeated and it looked like he wanted to give the coaches his equipment and leave the locker room, right then and there. What was being attempted by the coaches was having the opposite of the intended effect on the player. There were 20 minutes in that halftime and I would say that 17 of those minutes were focused on the center and his play that had been witnessed in the first half. When the game official came to the locker room door and said “two minutes coach”, the team began to gather their helmets and move towards the door. Just before the team left for the field, I noticed that our center was just sitting there staring straight ahead with a somber look on his face. At that moment, I could not think of anything to say to him that may make him feel good about himself. I walked over to the blackboard and called out the center’s last name and then for some reason, I rubbed my entire arm over the large #61 on the blackboard. When my arm returned to my side, the blackboard was smeared and absent of the #61. The center rose from his sitting position and turned towards me with a smile on his face and then, he gritted his teeth, began to growl, joined his teammates and ran onto the field! During the second half of that game, #61 was held in check and did not have any more plays where he caused the offense to lose yardage and for most of the rest of the game, the center was the only player we needed to successfully block him. Towards the end of the 4th quarter something happened that surprised all of us in the press box and on the field. We had the ball close to the goal line and called a play where the running back would be given the ball by the quarterback and would run straight up the middle, directly behind the center. As the play unfolded and the running back received the football, #61 was being pushed completely out of the back of the end zone by our center and the running back could have walked in for a touchdown!

*Supplemental note: Years later, I heard someone yell, “Hey Coach” and I turned around and there was a young man who looked very familiar to me. Sure enough, it was the same young man who played center on that high school team. He thanked me for what I had done for him and said that he was going to coach his own son in football. He stated that he had wanted to quit on that night after all of the yelling in the locker room but that my wordless action helped him to realize that he was valued and respected as a player and person and he wanted to help other athletes feel that way about themselves.

Early Lessons – Meaningful Communication!

Seen and Not Heard:

Many times while I was growing up I heard phrases like “kids are meant to be seen and not heard” and while it still bothers me to hear something like that today, I try to look back upon my childhood from my parents’ and elders’ point of view. It’s not easy to see things the way that adults did while I was growing up however, I see now how some adults can feel so much pressure and stress that all they want is peace and quiet somewhere, away from the hustle and bustle of their daily lives. This type of communication was a way of them saying that I need peace and quiet, right now. Coaching young athletes is a joy and has been an honor of mine and I learned early that if communication on the field of play was a one way street then, the one way street was more then likely leading straight into a dead end and maybe even off a cliff!

Lions, Lizards and Leopards:

During the majority of the time that I have been a coach, the practice field has been reserved for teaching young athletes how to give their best and also, how to work together. Successful coaches can only become successful if, they are able to communicate with their players, parents and coaching staff in a way that is meaningful to each of these groups and gets the players to perform in a manner that they are looking for. That means, talking with each of these members of the team in a way that is understandable to them. In talking with players it is vital to be able to see how they are reacting to what you are saying or demonstrating and that means, watching their eyes, listening to what they are saying and paying close attention to their body motion and posture. Talking with players needs to be thorough and many times, what the coach is saying needs to be repeated several times in order for all athletes to understand what it is that they are supposed to be doing. One thing that took me a while to be able to do was to hear what was being said to me by a player and then adjust how I communicated to them what it was that I wanted them to learn or do. Most coaches that I have had the pleasure to work or talk with have said how agile they had to be in order to deliver a message to multiple players using different techniques and language. One such example that I remember from my early days of coaching was how some of the players on the team had a hard time identifying their right from their left and in talking with the players, I found out that they were able to grasp the names of animals rather easily and I adjusted how we lined up by using the names of animals such as lions, lizards and leopards were on the left side of the center and rhinos, rabbits and rams were on the right. In this way I was able to adapt my coaching style and the language that I was using to fit what the athletes were able to comprehend and learn.

Non-verbal Success:

Successful communication does not always need to be verbal. During my early days of coaching, my assistant coaches and I realized that we were having our quarterback run to the sideline after every offensive play in order for one of the coaches to tell him what the next play was going to be. The American football field is just over 50 yards wide and 100 yards long (from goal line to goal line). Picture a young athlete of 8, 9 or 10 years old running across the field after every play to get the next play and then, running back to the middle of the field and into the huddle to tell the rest of the players what the play was. Additionally, he would need to do this all in 30 seconds or less otherwise, the offense would be penalized 5 yards for a delay of game. My assistant coaches and I were trying to work on a way where we would be able to signal in the plays to our team without needing to have the quarterback run back and forth after every play and we came up with a non-verbal way to do it and it worked. Interestingly enough, the players loved it and we had a lot of fun with how we signaled in plays using various hand signals and images. Today, as I watch high school and college games, I see coaching staffs on the sidelines holding up all sorts of signs and images to signal in plays and it takes me back to those early days of coaching when I was learning how to be agile and adaptive in my communication with the young athletes who I have had the pleasure of coaching.

Early Lessons – You Are Coach!

Coach John, Coach Johnny and Coach Rich:

In the small town that I grew up in, I was expected to address adults using “mister”, “misses” or “miss” and then the adult’s surname, i.e. Smith, Jones, etc. When I began playing football, I was instructed to call my coaches by “Coach” and then their first name, i.e. “Coach John”. This came as a shock to me because it was not what I was taught and somewhere in my mind, I felt like I would be disrespecting these coaches by calling them “coach” instead of “mister”. The coaches insisted and in an instant, I found a new way to respect the “masters of the youth grid iron”. For the first year of playing football for the coaches, I did not even know what their last names were. In fact, one day during the summer and just prior to me starting my second season with the team, my Dad said something to the tune of, “make sure you do what your coaches tell you to because if you don’t then, I will hear about it at work. “Wait! What???” Now, this statement seemed as though I should ask my Dad how he would “hear about it at work” and me being curious, I asked him. “I work with your coach”, my Dad stated. “Coach John Maier”, he added. “He wants us to call him Coach John and I didn’t know what his last name was or where he worked”, I said back to my Dad. My Dad just looked at me as he began to walk by me and then he ruffled my hair with his hand and gave me a smile.

Saying “Thanks” to Coach John:

When my Dad was sick and was his body was getting ready to let his spirit free from the pain and suffering that he was going through, I went home to stay with him and to see my siblings and my Mom. When I arrived home and spent some time with my family, I started to have some thoughts about what “Coach John” was doing or if, he was still around the town and I asked my Mom one evening while we were resting from a tough day with my Dad. My Mom said that she thought that he was still around the town and that she had heard that he had been sick. I knew where “Coach” lived and I decided to take a chance and drop in on him, at some point during the next day. As I drove over to “Coach’s” house, I started to reminisce about how “Coach” gave me a chance to achieve my goals on and off the field. I remember the sayings and mannerisms that he had and how they had an influence on me and my coaching style. I remember about the time that he called a play so that I could score a touchdown during my last year of youth football which I wrote about in the A Short Pass – A Lifelong Lesson post. When I arrived at Coach’s house, I started to feel butterflies in my stomach as I was not sure if he would even remember me. I walked up the steps and knocked on the door and his wife answered the door. “Hi, I am a former player of Coach John and I was wondering if I may talk with him?”, I remember asking. She invited me in and as I turned the corner to enter the living room of the house, I saw “Coach” in a chair. He looked frail and older than I had remembered and of course, he should have since I had not seen him in over 30 years! “Coach, do you remember me?”, I asked him. “Of course I do, ‘Ski'”, he said and there it was, the nickname that I despised so much as a player! I sat and talked to “Coach” and I let him know what I had been doing and where I was living and I also let him know about my Dad and his deteriorating health. “Coach” was grateful that I stopped by and wanted me to pass along his prayers to my Mom and family. I did not know that this would be the last time that I would be able to talk with my “Coach” at the time and I told him that he was the reason that I was coaching football and had been for over 20 years. I let him know that the faith and confidence that he had in me all those years ago made me want to help other young athletes feel the same way that I did to have someone see something good in me. I hugged “Coach” and wished him well and thanked him for sharing this precious time together and one more time I said to him, “thank you Coach!”

No Matter Where You Go:

I could probably write 2 dozen posts about specific incidences when I was out with family or friends and had a former player come up to me just to say “Hi Coach”. I want to highlight 2 of those incidences in this section of today’s post. I live and coach in Wisconsin and I travel from time to time out of state with family and friends and on occasion, by myself. One summer when I was on vacation in Ohio with family which included my 2 young sons (they are now 29 and 27), we stopped at a store near the hotel that we were staying at. We were getting a few things for our outing the next day and maybe a bite to eat for the evening when I heard “hey Coach!” I turned around as I have heard most coaches are programmed to do when they hear these words and I was standing about 10 feet away from a man who was much bigger than I was and he was walking towards me and my family. As he grew closer to me, I recognized the face and the gait and I knew that he was talking to me. It was a player who played on one of my first youth teams. He reached out his hand and he said “Coach Vince it’s me, John R.” “Holy shit!”, I said. “What are you doing here in Ohio?” John had a huge smile on his face and he said that he was going to college in Ohio and that he was starting as a freshman in a few weeks. He wasn’t playing football anymore and wanted me to know how much he learned from having me as a coach and how disciplined he was about setting himself achievable goals and then working as hard as he could to attain those goals. What a great compliment and how nice it was to see him. I asked him to say hello to his parents for me and he said that they were doing well and that he would do just that. We parted ways and my evening was better than I thought it would be. The second such “run-in” with a former player happened this summer on the golf course. My friend set up a tee time for the 2 of us at a Milwaukee area course and when we arrived at the course we were informed that there would be another twosome joining us for our round of golf. That was fine by us and besides, we were on the golf course and I think that golfing is pretty close to being in heaven! As my buddy and I approached the first tee, the other 2 gentlemen who were going to be golfing with us road up in a golf cart and introduced themselves to us. “I am Ben” one of them said. My buddy and I introduced ourselves and I said “my name is Vince”. Ben said, “Vince Grabowski?” I remember recognizing the face and knew that I knew this “Ben” and just was not sure where I knew him from. At this point, I had been coaching football for over 30 years and have been an official in baseball and football in Wisconsin for the better part of 25 years so, it goes without saying that I have met a lot of people. Then Ben said “Coach Vince” and then it was narrowed down. “You coached at the high school that my brother and I attended.” Now, I remembered! “My brother still talks about how much fun he had on that team and how you let him play safety on defense”, Ben said. It was great to see and get to know the “all grown up” Ben and during our round of golf which was the best round of golf that I have had in years not because of my score but rather because, I had an incredible time sharing stories and time with this incredible person who until that day, I had only known as a high school football player and maybe he only knew me as “Coach”.

Early Lessons – X’s and O’s

What are X’s and O’s Coach?:

When I was playing youth football, each play was called using letters and numbers. The numbers in the play let everyone on the offense know who was getting the ball and where the ball was going. The letters in the play let everyone know which wide receiver was going in motion and which pass pattern they were going to run during a passing play. Here is an example of a really basic youth football play: I-left, X-motion, 24-counter. Let me explain the parts of this play so that I will be able to better explain the rest of this post. First, each backfield position(quarterback and running back) and every gap between offensive linemen on the offense is associated with a number. The quarterback is usually number 1, running backs are numbers 2 and 3 (sometimes 4 if the offense has 3 running backs). The gaps to the right side of the center are usually even numbers beginning with 2 and each gap to the left side of the center is usually odd numbered beginning with 1. If the play was going to go directly up the middle then, the center is usually numbered 0. This would mean that the 2 back will be handed the ball and will be running into the second gap to the right of the center (2 is the hole directly next to the center and 4 would be the next gap to the right which is between the guard and tackle on offense), in the example: I-left, X-motion, 24-counter. The wide receivers are usually lettered, X and Z. When there are more than 2 wide receivers on the field at one time then, Y is usually used to represent the 3rd wide receiver otherwise, the tight end takes on the Y label. Think of the wide receivers letters as if you were reading a book, left to right. With this information, the X receiver will be lined up on the left (left to right) and at a predetermined quarterback’s signal (it may be a lift of a leg or a specific word), the X receiver will go in motion from left to right. Now, we have 2 parts of this play explained: I-left, X-motion, 24-counter. Now, the I-left contains 2 pieces of information for the offense, the positioning of the 2 running backs in the backfield I and the location that the tight end is going to line up on, left. I formation means that the 2 running backs will line up one behind the other with the running back who will be getting the ball behind the running back who will be the decoy. For this play, that means that the 3 back will be roughly 3 yards behind the quarterback and the 2 back will be roughly 2 yards behind the 3 back. Now, we have all parts of the play accounted for except for the counter. In this example the counter simply means that the quarterback is going to turn to his left and fake the ball to the 3 back who will be going to the left and then continue to turn and hand the ball of to the 2 back who will take a counter step to his left at the snap of the ball and then run to his right, take the hand off and run through the 4 hole.

Teaching X’s and O’s:

When I started out coaching youth football in 1989, I only knew about the basic formations and numbering of players and running gaps on the offense. I needed to gain a greater understanding of what could be absorbed by a group of 8, 9 and 10 year old athletes. I started to do some studying and went to a lot of semi pro and high school football games. I also talked to a lot of coaches who had played college and semi-pro football or who had been coaching for a lot longer than I had been, in order to get some ideas on how to go about teaching the execution of plays to the players on my team. Almost every single player and coach that I talked to said about the same thing, that these kids want to learn and they will if, you are consistent in your method of teaching and in telling how to do something correctly. I remember hearing things like, point out how to make small goals for each player on each play, let them know how to do their job correctly, teach them to trust their teammates, show them how to lead when you are not on the field, use consistent terminology, let them know what success will look like, treat them with respect after all, they are playing the game and when something does not go as planned, teach them the right way and don’t point out their faults! This was an incredible learning experience for me and I also must say that there were times when I didn’t understand some of the terminology that was being used to explain things to me by these colleagues. This is when I decided to enlist the help of my coaches and my players. I talked with my coaches about what I was learning and I made sure that if any of them had any questions that we would work together to try and get the right answers. I tried to remember the phrases that I had heard from other coaches and players and I did my best to be consistent in my messages to the team and to the coaches and parents. I led by example, most of the time and I praised effort and success based on each player’s skill level and willingness to make themselves better. Most of all, I tried my best to make sure that the players had fun at each practice. One of the things that we tried to do as coaches was to play against the team after we had finished practice. There were 4 or 5 of us coaches who would team up against the players and at the age of 23, I was able to keep up with most of the players however, the main objective was to make sure that the players had fun and left practice with a smile.

Lesson Learned:

During my early days of coaching there was much that I needed to learn in order to be a better coach and leader for young athletes. I listened intently to what others were telling me and did my best to absorb the knowledge that so many were willing to share with me. I wrote things down (some of the notes I still have today) and I did my best to pay it forward. First, to the athletes that I was coaching. Then as I became a more seasoned coach and mentor, to other coaches who approached me for some direction and with questions of their own. Finally, I did my best to continue to learn! As I moved from youth football to high school football to semi pro, the terminology associated with play calling changed and became more intricate and detailed. I wanted to learn how I may be able to take some small details from the semi pro play calling and bring them to the youth team that I was coaching. I was able to adapt to the changing aspects of the game which included, more fast paced play, route trees and various offensive and defensive personnel packages. Each of the new schemes and ideas that I was exposed to, I did my best to learn and then alter just enough to be able to communicate them to the athletes that I was and still am coaching today. I remained focused on the real reason that I want to coach which is to let young athletes know that they will almost always be part of a team and that they will need to rely on someone else at some point in their life. That they are capable of achieving any goal that they set for themselves if, they work hard enough and make the right choices on the path to their attainable goal. One of the main things that I learned about coaching young athletes is that the coaching community that I have been associated with is laser focused on the same thing, helping young athletes strive to be their best and to have fun playing in sports!