‘All-in’ is really the only way any team can survive

‘All-in’ is really the only way any team can survive

An involved parent group can be a godsend for any school or youth sports team.

An involved parent group can be a nightmare for any school or youth sports team.

Why the contradictory thoughts?

Because speaking from personal experience, I can confirm the two statements are joyfully — and regrettably — reality. And while the topic of parental involvement/influence in school and youth sports is anything but new, it’s one I’ve been wrestling with this week.

After learning one of the area’s most successful and most respected coaches has stepped down from his position, I am struggling with the circumstances. Based on what the coach told me, there are some folks who are likely celebrating the departure of the modest man who devoted more than 30 years to girls who love to play the sport of volleyball.

A proven winner need not “go out” this way. The handful of grown-ups responsible for turning the “all-in” approach into toxic interference must, in the future, be made to see the big picture, must understand that “all-in” is the only way any team can survive. Any team.

Having coached at the high school and youth levels for over 30 years myself, I appreciate completely the battles he’s won and the war he’s lost. So many moments of promise and emotional fulfillment fade among doubts. “Did I do enough? What could I have done better? I’m not coming back.”

I was lucky enough to coach several iterations of youth softball “travel teams.” The idea was to develop the skills of girls who eventually would wind up on the high school team with which I was associated. Some years the girls had little or no family life, and it was up to me and the other coach to reserve motel rooms, line up rental vans, organize breakfast, lunch and between-game snacks, wash clay-stained uniforms, and stock the always-needed first aid kit. After all that was tended to, we actually enjoyed “coaching time.”

There were a couple of summers the moms and dads handled the off-the-field chores. I recall my co-coach saying, “This is great! All we have to do is show up and coach. It’s kind of like the pros!”

Aside from the sunburns we got each weekend in the blistering Florida sun, those were delightful times, for sure. We won some, lost some. We learned a lot of softball and even more about ourselves.

The girls then “graduated” to the high school ranks. Again, I was lucky enough to team up with fantastic coaches who meshed together well, as did the teens. The run lasted 18 years at that school, and at the risk of sounding big-headed, we snared five state championships and were in the final four all but two springs.

Truth is we became our own worst enemies. Parents took the final-four appearances for granted. In fact, they began to demand championship seasons. They began to demand softball starters be allowed to miss games in-season in order to travel with their volleyball club.

Though the program was respected far and wide, things at home grew contentious. None of us softball coaches ever had any of our own kids on the team, so we never worried about “playing favorites.” Yet there were complaints galore — most of them petty — until the day a school board member who was close with a dad followed us on the interstate. At that time we drove the team to games in school-owned mini-vans.

That same highway spy started showing up at practice, watching from afar as if we couldn’t see him. It was obvious: Somebody wanted us out of Dodge.

Softball wasn’t fun anymore. So we quit.

I shifted to another local school in town and coached another four years with one of the best softball coaches on the planet. Last year his team at Florida SouthWestern State College won the junior college national championship. Since leaving the high school ranks with 817 victories and 12 state fast-pitch titles, he has gone 298-37 in six seasons at FSW in Fort Myers.

With an amazing winning record like that, I would assume most of the parents are “all-in.”

All the while, poisonous parental power grabs at the high school and youth levels continue to proliferate. Is there any end in sight?

As one (former) volleyball coach whose team was 21-5 and the conference champion for a fifth-straight time this fall put it:

“I’m afraid that horse left the barn a few years ago.”