Jan 29, 2015
Tackling a Tough Talk

By Ryan Johnson

We have all seen the kid who works his or her tail off training, but just doesn’t have enough natural talent to be a major contributor to the team when the game is on the line. Sometimes their odds of making it are made worse by a line of talented athletes playing in front of them. This is especially complicated when that athlete’s whole life revolves around training to improve as a player. It can be painful to watch them work so hard, knowing their chances of getting in the game are minimal.

This spring, I had a young man, a linebacker in our football program, approach me on a Friday as I was closing up shop after a long week of workouts. As he walked over, I felt the wind leave my sail.

I knew he was going to ask me what more he could be doing in order to start for our varsity football team next fall. But the truth of the matter is that this young man will never be able to start for our football team, and in fact, will not even be able to start for our junior varsity squad. Unfortunately for him, he is playing behind two players who are both going to eventually play at NCAA Division I level. Compounding the situation, he will likely be passed by a couple of exceptional younger players who are progressing through our program.

Sensing his questions, I began thinking of how to let him down gently. I didn’t want to crush his dream, but at the same time didn’t want to lead him on. Too many times, I feel people aren’t honest enough with athletes, which can come back to haunt them in several ways.

So I chose my words carefully. I told the young man he had a great workout, and he should go home feeling proud of the work he put in that week–and that he and I would talk on Monday. It wasn’t a lie–he does work his tail off–the problem is that he simply isn’t very big, or strong, or fast. That’s a combination that doesn’t bode well for anyone wishing to be a football player.

But he is absolutely relentless when it comes to workouts. He has never missed a single session. He wants it so bad, but doesn’t have the physical tools to be an impact player for our team.

I thought about him as I made my drive home and grew frustrated when I put myself in his shoes. But that disappeared as soon as I took off my coaching hat and put on the husband/dad hat and went about my life. Though in reality, I never take off my coaching hat–it’s kind of like a headband that is always there under my husband or father hat.

I didn’t think much about the young linebacker again until Sunday–in church of all places. Our pastor had a great lesson about accepting your strengths in life. He talked about having a plain brown bag that contained each of our personal gifts. The visuals were great, and as he started explaining what we all have in our own bags, I began to think of the young man who approached me on Friday, and what attributes he had in his bag compared to his other teammates.

I didn’t have the chance to sit down with him for a while, and to be honest I was kind of trying to avoid the conversation. I kept thinking about how I would discuss what skills and gifts he had compared to the players who would be starting ahead of him. I knew what I planned to do, but needed the right opportunity.

I mentioned that I never really take off my coaching hat. My weeknights and weekends also revolve around youth sports–that is just who I am. One night during the early part of our baseball season, I was approached by a parent who felt his child should be pitching.

Out of the blue, I began to speak about what skills and traits his son had demonstrated as a player using the brown bag metaphor. I asked the parent to describe what he would put in his son’s bag and also asked him what he would put in the bags of some of the other kids who were pitching.

Eventually, we were able to come to a mutual understanding, and the dad admitted his child needed to work on improving some of the traits the other pitchers already possessed. I am not going to say the brown bag comparison magically fixed the problem, but it sure got me through what could have been a real confrontational and somewhat difficult conversation minutes before a game.

After that night, I figured I should talk to my linebacker sooner than later to prepare him for the realities of the season. The conversation went well. He took it pretty hard but understood where I was coming from and felt better when I told him he would be the captain of our j.v. team.

One of the real positives that came out of the conversation was when we talked about the skills in his bag. I told him he had mental toughness, a team attitude, and perfect attendance–all things that would serve him very well later in life with a family and a career.

He chuckled when I mentioned a wife and kids, and really brightened up when I told him I would be honored to write a college letter of recommendation for him. I told him that because of his work ethic and leadership skills, his would be one of the easiest letters I would ever have to write.

Throughout this tough experience, I learned a number of lessons–namely, the importance of honesty. It might be tough to tell parents and kids the hard truths, but if you do it with honesty and compassion, short-term pain will eventually be replaced by joy.

Ryan Johnson is Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Wayzata (Minn.) High School. He is also a frequent blogger for T&C. He can be reached at: [email protected].

FEEDBACK Thank you so much for taking the time to write this article. I’m sure I’m not the only who breathed a sigh of relief to have such a thoughtful and graceful way to handle a potential life altering situation. From employees not in the right field, the student athletic trainer who thought the athletic training room was a great place to pick up guys and the athlete who is going to need a long recovery, the brown bag provides an avenue that saves face and can give them pride in other strengths.

I will be sharing this article with friends, colleagues and fellow clinical psychology students. I am looking forward to hearing more from all of your hats!

– Karen Hyde Premier Sports Services

Just read your article via the Tools of the Trade email I receive. Powerful stuff. I appreciate your candor in the article. Having sons with 2 different athletic abilities helps me relate to what you had to say. I may need the brown bag metaphor at some point and I am thankful to have it. Thank you…for being a leader/teacher for our young men!

– Linda Muller Community Relations Director Velocity Sports Performance

Very nice job on your recent “tough Talk” article.

You love to have kids like your boy on your team and it very hard when these types of kids are not on the field. I always work to find ways to get them on the field – special teams, spot plays, first kid off the bench during run away games.

Very good – thanks for sharing!

– Mike Shibinski Princeton High School Strength Coach

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