Jan 29, 2015
Game of Emotions

By Ryan Johnson

Being a strength and conditioning coach in today’s athletic landscape requires more than just a knowledge of how to shape athletes’ bodies. In this Blog, Ryan Johnson, CSCS, Coach Practitioner and Strength and Conditioning Coach at Wayzata High School in Plymouth, Minn., writes about helping his players through the diverse emotional and psychological challenges they face on and off the field.

Greetings from the North Country, where homecoming has come and gone, quite successfully I might add. Our football team won the game and the dance was packed–a total success by most students’ and parents’ standards. The victory was impressive, not just from a score standpoint (we won 44-14) but rather because of all the adversity our team overcame during the week leading up to the game.

From the stands, it appeared a decisive victory. However, the view from the sidelines was completely different. To begin the game, our team was playing without three starters–two because of injury and one that had a family emergency two hours before kickoff. The injured players had been out all week so their backups were prepared, but the backup for the player with the family emergency was thrust into a starting role.

During the game, we jumped to an early 16-0 lead and had momentum on our side. As a team we were feeling pretty good–probably too good. In the next three minutes, our opponent completed a 65-yard touchdown pass and returned a punt to bring the score to 16-14. The momentum of the game had shifted to their side and you could see it as they were flying around the field.

In the span of two plays we gave our opponent a very real emotional edge in the game, but then two pivotal plays returned the momentum to our side. The first was an injury to the opposing player who had caught the touchdown pass–he broke his arm and left the game via ambulance. The other was a controversial touchdown catch that sent us into the locker room at halftime ahead 23-14. They had lost all momentum and we could even see their will to compete wane in the second half as we went on to win by 30 points.

Injuries are a part of sport and coaches know this. Strength coaches and athletic trainers spend countless hours in the off-season hoping to prevent them, and an equal amount of time trying to get athletes back in the game during the season. Another equally important aspect of sport, one that relates to injuries, is emotional well being.

Emotions play a major role in sports. I tell kids all the time to play with emotion but to not get emotional. In fact, we tell our kids the only emotion to show on the field is joy. We want them to remain levelheaded and to not retaliate with cheap shots or pound our fists in anger after a missed play. We tell them to stay focused, sharp, and get ready for the next opportunity–don’t dwell on what is in the past.

High school football is a very passionate game and playing once a week reduces the overall games to less then a dozen regular season games in most states (Minnesota schools plays eight). It’s not quite like a basketball schedule that is packed with over 20 games–in football, every game counts for a lot. Therefore, every play has the potential to directly factor into the outcome of your season.

As strength coaches, we deal with these emotions all the time. It is amazing to think of all the off-field issues we deal with on a daily basis–it gives us a different perspective. Athletes grow close to us emotionally. As we get to know them, we are able to read them pretty well.

We learn about all the emotional ups and downs our athletes are going through. What one teacher or coach sees as an act of defiance by a player may actually be a cry for help. I remember one season a player of mine kept hitting very violently in practice after being told to stop. After he unloaded on a running back once again, our head coach kicked him out of practice for not listening.

I knew something was wrong and walked him into the locker room. It turns out his older brother had been missing for weeks and nobody knew where he was. This kid feared that his brother was dead and it was eating him up and the only person he was comfortable talking to was me. I informed the head coach and the three of us met after practice and got him set up with his guidance counselor immediately.

I have a hundred other stories like this one. The on-field part of coaching is only half the battle–if people only knew the amount of time we spend counseling players and parents through injuries, scholarships, relationships, grades, etc. The view from the top is certainly not the same as it is from the sidelines. But in the end, I am okay with that because after all, I didn’t go into coaching for myself. I did it to be with kids and I love it. I once heard a coach talk about taking a player by the hand and a parent by the heart. With this perspective, I think everyone wins.

To read more about our strength and conditioning program, go to: www.wayzata.k12.mn.us. And please feel free to e-mail me with any questions or blog ideas at: [email protected].

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