by beth broderick, MYAN Senior Program Officer and high school lacrosse coach
Coaching high school athletics has always been about relationships. As leaders, we celebrate the small and big efforts of our teams – especially when the outcome is more hard-learned lesson than success. We stand in the tough losses, regularly owning more than our share, hoping to buffer teams from those most painful moments. We ride the emotional roller coasters on good days and bad, sitting alongside and bearing witness to each team member’s experiences. And we do all of this while organizing programs, coordinating schedules, and navigating a few hundred other details inherent to our roles.
Despite the challenges – and there are always a few – I love coaching.
Coaching high school lacrosse is something I look forward to all year long, and this week I am getting ready to see players in person for the first time in nearly two years. I feel excited at the prospect of standing outside on Maine’s version of a spring day, watching the Bulldogs take the turf again. I am also hustling to prepare for that moment, reflecting on what my leadership needs to look like right now – and considering if I have what it takes.
In search of answers, I went back to my roots – in sports and life: I called my dad.
Kev, or Coach Broderick as he is known to players, has been coaching high school lacrosse in Virginia for more than 20 years. He has an impressive record to accompany plenty of great stories. We are as similar as we are different in our coaching practices. We both read voraciously, love to learn, are students of the game, and deeply believe in the values of fair play and equity. While I work hard to be a steady emotional rock for players, consistent and caring in my engagements, Kev coaches with his emotions on his sleeve – leading cheers and calling for accountability in every huddle. No one I know works harder than he does as a coach, and as I prepare for the 2021 season our conversations have given me a lot to consider.
Although Coach Broderick does not cite the research or use the fancy terms, he is thinking hard about Belonging, Agency, and Relationships (BAR) right now. He is putting youth engagement best practices into action. After a year of inequitable and disparate pandemic-impacts, investing in each individual player and caring for their well-being is a high priority.
In a program with more than 40 student-athletes, individually tailored engagements can feel overwhelming to a coach. The Coach Broderick Method involves a preseason meeting between each player and the coaching staff, part of communicating decisions regarding varsity and junior varsity levels, as well as a post-season exit interview where players receive feedback and are invited to share their experiences with coaches. It works in large part because the players’ feedback is demonstrably incorporated into the subsequent season, and the team has confidence that their input is valued.
Coach Broderick’s formally structured meetings, while a great opportunity to model workforce development skills with young people, do not mesh with the culture I inherited in our program – and are not really my style. I prefer impromptu engagements as players filter into the training facility, side conversations during warm-ups, and casual catchups while waiting for waylaid parents after practice. Still, this season is unlike past ones and I am committed to bringing more intention to my practice of engaging each student-athlete.
I started a few weeks ago, sending each prospective player an email inquiring about their year and asking if they felt up to playing again this spring. When we finally see the turf again, players can look forward to practice pods with rotating leadership opportunities and intra-squad competitions designed to maximize fun while celebrating the strengths of every athlete. Coach Broderick & I know that raising the BAR is an investment in, rather than distraction from, our collective goals as competitive high school sports programs.
Raising the BAR in high school athletics is only as impactful as our commitment to equity.
Practically, this is about ensuring sports are accessible to any interested student, with a particular eye towards the barriers ever-present for historically marginalized groups, including BIPOC, LGBTQ, and poor youth. As a co-curricular activity at the high school level, athletics are an extension of the classroom and a prime forum to invest in culturally affirming social emotional learning. Players who find their way to our training facility doorsteps are supported in building relationships with peers and coaches, finding a sense of belonging within the program, & accessing their own agency through layered leadership opportunities. Still, we know there are many more students who do not find their way to practice.
Coach Broderick and I welcome perspectives and ideas that challenge our programs’ status quo. We seek out new opportunities, working to grow into our best coaching selves, with the goal of being strong leaders on and off the field.
In contrast, some Maine lawmakers’ dangerous fear of difference lacks the moral leadership we strive to model with young people; LD 926 deeply offends the values upon which I base my coaching. The bill is a disgrace to sports. Interested players willing to learn with their teammates and contribute to the program are welcome on the turf with the Bulldogs this spring. The returning players are spreading the word about why they love playing and the athletic director is directly inviting students who may be beginners in the sport. I am grateful for their support and a community comprised of so many other coaches who honor the work. Equity is a team effort for us.
I feel like I am sprinting into the season with more questions than answers. Sports may be a beacon for young people during an unprecedented pandemic. They have always been a privilege, albeit an inequitable one, and never more so than now.
As a coach I am working to raise the BAR for players in our program, and that work starts with me. Kev’s advice is to “take small bites,” so next month I am heading to MYAN’s virtual Youth Leadership Conference to attend the adult community spaces and deepen my learning about the healthy development of Maine youth. I am also reconnecting with former coaches and teammates, tapping the Maine coaching network for COVID-readiness tips, and listening to a few good leadership podcasts for inspiration. Belonging, Agency, and Relationships are as important for adults as they are for young people.
Before we know it, spring temperatures will be here and I plan to be ready on the sidelines, masked up and with a full tank of great coaching energy to share with players. There has never been a better time to raise the BAR in our work with young people.
Here are some of the resources shaping our practice at MYAN:
- The America’s Promise Alliance research series on How Learning Happens includes What Drives Learning: Young People’s Perspectives on the Importance of Relationships, Belonging, and Agency, which details the importance of Belonging, Agency, and Relationships. Learn more here.
- The Aspen Institute’s Project Play toolkit Calls for Coaches applies fundamental social emotional learning concepts to a youth sports context including practical suggestions for strengthening practices, team culture, and relationships with student-athletes. Download the toolkit here.
- The past year brought us many new resources relating to Social Emotional Learning. As you sift through them, ASCD’s March issue of Educational Leadership includes a piece by Dena Simmons which frames what culturally-affirming SEL can look like – and why SEL Alone is Not Enough. Read more here.