The best coach I ever had as a kid was the one who never coached any of my teams. That would be my dad, Fraser Robinson. A pump worker at the city of Chicago water plant, he would come home from work, often after a double shift, and we would go in the backyard and play basketball, football, baseball -- whatever. We played a different game each season. He was the one who guided my love of sports starting around age five, through participation first and foremost, and pickup play.
Sometimes my dad would take my sister, Michelle, and me down to our neighborhood park on the Southside of Chicago. We had bats and gloves, and the other kids would come up and join in. Dad would organize us then go sit on the sideline and let the kids take over, allowing the play to happen organically. That was the blueprint of my sporting life until age 10, when I first started playing organized ball. Kids just had fewer organized sport options back then.
My dad was all about positive reinforcement. He got me addicted to positive reinforcement. He coached with unconditional love. He encouraged us to accomplish something, and then he reinforced our efforts with a lot of praise. But it wasn't just praise. He'd throw in a little criticism and adversity, get you out of your comfort zone -- but not so far that you didn't want to come back the next day. There was a real combination of things there that kept me involved in sports, and that, in turn, helped me academically.
My dad used empathy, like all good coaches. The best coaches know how their players feel in the situation they're in. They understand the perspective or plight of the athlete, or child, and coach in an age-appropriate manner. If I'm coaching a little kid but treating the child like he or she's a high school athlete, that's not the right zone. My dad did a wonderful job of knowing what I was feeling. He knew that I was fearful to play with a travel team once the opportunity presented itself, but that it was good for me to do it. And for baseball, he knew to keep me in Little League one year more instead of moving me up to Pony League.
There really is no one answer when coaching a kid -- they're all different.
Take Michelle. Around the age of 9, we both went to day camp where there were a lot of sports, mostly organized pickup play. She enjoyed it, but from an early age she really wasn't an organized sports person. She didn't like the fact that somebody had to lose. She just wanted to participate. Once we started keeping score, she would step out. That's why the whole Let's Move thing is so her with its focus on personal achievement -- how many jumping jacks can you do, that kind of thing. She was competitive when you'd play a board game with her, but when she came to athletics, she didn't like to see someone lose. I get it. The parents at youth games are often more stressed than the kids, and that's distasteful.
Michelle spent her years watching me play. Not that there were many sports for girls back then anyway.
I was more comfortable with organized competition. The first time I slipped on a uniform was in Biddy Basketball, at the local YMCA. Again, my dad just helped me feel good about participating by staying for practice and games, and getting me to a comfort level to be coached by someone else. A year or two later, around age 12, they formed a travel team -- my first travel team -- from the top kids in the house league. Next thing I knew, I was in Kansas City for a tournament without my parents.
That's when the style of coaching I received began to change. The travel team was coached by the late Bob Hambric, the famous boys' coach at Simeon High School. He was much more acerbic, much more critical -- and physical. Hambric used corporal punishment. If you made a mistake, you got swatted with a paddle.
Times were so different. We lived in an era when parents spanked their kids. It's gone by the wayside and I don't want to bring it back. Plus, kids today would never play for anyone who would swat them with a paddle. And, gone are the days when you can coach every kid the same way. It makes coaching harder, but treating each kid as an individual is the right way.
Kids between the ages of 6 and 14 need unconditional love, especially from their parents. But what I see parents doing today is stacking the deck in favor of their kid. That's the worst thing you can do. You want to help them find the right level, then focus on skill development and love of the game. Let's face it, most kids aren't going to play sports at the D-I college level, so it's important that they come away from their experience where they want to be in sports and be active for the rest of their lives. It's about their psychological, emotional, social and physical welfare.
In Chicago, in my day, football started in high school. I wanted to play. Again, my father was ahead of his time -- he didn't like all the hard contact and injuries, so he steered me away from the game. I stuck with baseball and basketball, and went on to get great coaching in high school that helped shape the course of my life. My experience with coaches, starting with my dad and up through college, explains why I left Wall Street for coaching. I wanted the reward of working with young people, helping them develop.
Moving forward, I'd like to see more coaches get trained in the basics. No one ever formally taught me how to coach; I was just fortunate to be around coaches who were experienced, people I could learn from. I think training would be immensely valuable at the youth level, where a lot of guys think they know how to coach because they played in high school, but don't really have the tools to make it a good experience for kids and influence their lives in a positive manner. We need to find a way to bottle good skill development coaching with technique on how to work with kids emotionally and psychologically, and get it to people who are interested in being coaches. That would be as valuable as a college degree.
Indeed, I think it would be great if the nation's universities helped lead this effort. All of these colleges already offer educational degrees that qualify students for teaching certificates. Why not add a few more hours on coaching competencies -- any training is good training -- and get a coaching certificate? We should be training more students to be both teachers and coaches, as a lot of the skills are transferable.
In the meantime, for me, it's worth remembering the simple, powerful lessons of Fraser Robinson.
This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The Aspen Institute, in conjunction with the latter's "Project Play." Project Play aims to re-imagine youth sports in the U.S., and on November 20 in Colorado Springs, Colorado, will convene more than 30 thought leaders to help develop a plan to grow the quality and quantity of youth coaches nationally. To see all the other posts in the series, click here. For more information about Project Play, click here or follow @AspenInstSports.