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Sports Column: Wishing coaches the best of three out of four greats

Before every season, Middlebury Union High School Activities Director Sean Farrell asks all boys and girls aspiring to be on teams that season and their parents and coaches to attend an organizational meeting at the high school.
We meet first as a group in the gym and then in individual team meetings. Coaches introduce themselves and their athletic philosophy and address relevant practical concerns.
I have two children at MUHS who enjoy sports so I have attended 11 of these meetings so far, and likely have five more coming up.
Sean often starts the assembly by discussing the jigsaw puzzle that is his life. He discusses the coaching defections since the last season and the challenge of filling his roster of coaches for that season.
It’s not as if his binders are full of abundantly qualified and meticulously vetted candidates for every opening. He puts together a group of the best-qualified coaches he can.
Many years ago, when I was in my 20s, I took on a high school teaching and coaching job in Ohio. I started out as the JV basketball and baseball coach. At the beginning of the basketball season, the athletic director handed me 15 warm-ups and 10 basketballs.
He told me, “At the end of the season, if you give me back 15 warm-ups and 10 basketballs, I’m going to think you’re a heck of a coach.” His concerns were practical.
When I was a kid myself, playing sports in school, my parents threatened to send me off to boarding school. I begged them not to do it. All I wanted in life, in adolescence, was to be a Lewiston High Blue Devil.
I wanted to play for the high school varsity coaches who were icons in the town. They saw themselves as the apex of a pyramid of participation, the leader of a “program,” extending down into the junior high and even lower-level organized sports.
What are the incentives today to coach school sports? The pay is short and the hours long and the headaches many, sometimes overwhelming.
Working with teenagers, emerging adults, and the parents who love them, sometimes intrusively, are a lot to take on, when your own life is demanding enough without these challenges.
Young athletes’ window of time is narrow indeed as they advance through the grades, growing in size and strength, gaining skills. They “retire” just as they are maturing into adults. The pressure on coaches to provide competitive opportunities is considerable.
It seems at times that for most parents, coaches possess the same flaw, more or less: it’s a syndrome called “my kid doesn’t play enough.”
It’s astonishing how often coaches lose competence in the blink of an eye. Brilliant one year, riding high, winning games, championships even; incompetent the next: the team is losing and they can’t coach anymore. Same approach, same level of effort, vastly different results.
President Kennedy famously said, “Victory has a thousand fathers, defeat is an orphan.” Handling defeat, coaching a losing team, overmatched by their opponents, is often a coach’s truest test and the time when they need the most support.
As Hall of Fame basketball coach Al McGuire said, “The best thing in sports is winning; the second best thing is losing.” The key, either way, is the opportunity to live fully in the moment, to experience the exhilaration of athletic competition, even in defeat.
Though they share the same pressures and demands, some coaches are indeed better than others, as in any line. Successful coaches come in all shapes and sizes, ages and backgrounds and personalities. They do share some qualities:
They have a technical knowledge of the sport they’re coaching and an ability to impart that knowledge, the X’s and O’s. They are teachers of sport.
They demonstrate respect and fairness to players, opponents and officials. They have a love of competition and sport generally and believe it to be a positive force in the development of young people. They enjoy kids.
They understand the authority they have in the lives of young people and their responsibility to be role models and mentors. They know the importance of both a firm hand and a soft touch.
They are dedicated to school and community and view sports in a larger social context. They identify with and communicate with other shareholders — players, most of all, but also school administrators, teachers and parents, as tricky as that can often be.
In a word, they’re leaders. It’s a tough job.
This holiday season, let’s send special best wishes to the coaches of our teams in Addison County — at Middlebury, Vergennes, Mount Abraham, and Otter Valley union high schools.
Let’s wish for them to receive the gift of the wisdom of Solomon, the patience of Job, the genius of Einstein. 
And the personality of Bill Belichick.
Three out of four ain’t bad.

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