3 min
October 16, 2022

The Secret To Coaching High School Athletes

I have a love-hate relationship with coaching field hockey. 

Coaching gives me a natural high. When a player works on her pull-rights every practice and then does it in the game for the first time, I literally see her confidence grow in that moment. When an athlete dreads conditioning and can’t complete it in August but then thanks me for getting her in the best shape of her life in October, I see a young woman empowered. My adrenaline skyrockets after a day of small wins. I’m invigorated.

But I also feel anxious and insecure before every practice. I once had a player curse me out, tell me I was the worst coach in the world, that all the players hated me, and that the parents were conspiring to have me fired. Another time I had all three senior captains go behind my back and complain to the athletic director because “practices were boring,” “they weren’t learning enough,” and “no one was having fun.” 

How did I react in those moments? I folded my arms across my chest and with the maturity of a teenager I let them have it. How dare they! When I was in high school, if I talked to a coach the way they talked to me I’d be off the team. No questions, no conversation.

Former UCLA Softball Coach Sue Enquist explains that the only thing kids want is to be heard. She had a message for all her colleagues who insisted on referring back to when they played and how they were coached:

“To all my friends who are 45 years old and older, please stop saying, ‘When I was your age,…’ You’re gonna become so irrelevant so fast. Simply, create the conditions every single week with your team to say, ‘How can I make this environment better for you?’”

But I couldn’t ask my players that question because I was too concerned with my image. To listen to them was to be vulnerable and weak. I had to be strong, confident, and unwavering in my position. I didn’t have to listen to them. They had to listen to me. 

It wasn’t until my eighth year coaching high school athletes that I finally looked around at all the girls on the field and had an epiphany: 

I am just like the players on my team. 

Like them, I have confidence in some areas of field hockey but not others. Like them, I have the knowledge and experience to handle certain situations but not others. The title of “coach” does not suddenly make me an expert. The learning never ends.

You have to have the confidence to realize how much you have to offer and the grace to realize you have so much to learn. For all these years I felt like it was one or the other. I was either a good coach or a bad coach. It created an internal struggle with how I felt about coaching and an external struggle of trying to force the girls to respect me.

Now when a player challenges something I’ve said or done, I don’t immediately shut her down because I no longer feel threatened that she’s undermining my abilities as a coach. 

It’s liberating to feel like I don’t need to be right all the time. I can know what I know and be curious about the rest. And when I’m honest with the players about where I am, it creates opportunities to connect with them. 

I had a meeting with the seniors before the season started and they mentioned the previous senior captains. The same captains who complained about me to the athletic director. I used the opportunity to tell the girls, “I didn’t handle that situation well. I don’t always know how to handle things in the right way but I’m always trying to get better as a coach. Coaching high school athletes is hard.”

One of the seniors responded, “Yea, especially high school girls.”

It was a simple moment. But one that will make it easier in the future for me to open up to them and hopefully for them to open up to me. Anything I can do to get on the same page as my players will build trust and mutual respect. And that will make me a better coach.

The things in life we’re most passionate about are not because we’re experts in those things and have nothing new to learn. It’s precisely because learning and growing and improving is exciting and gives us purpose. 

So I no longer approach coaching field hockey as something I should already be good at.

Like writing, it’s something I love doing because there’s so much to learn.