My yearning to be a head coach again became a reality last week when I agreed to become the head coach of the Waupaca Area Girl’s high school hockey team. From the fog of the flat barren plain of retirement emerged a mountain that would need to be climbed. Instantly my empty nest was filled by a new set of surrogate daughters and the opportunity to become a hockey family.
On the surface the return of two all-state players and a core of players that won twenty-three games just two years ago are promising and exciting. However, like a fledgling program in Spooner and a downtrodden program at Wausau East my newest mountain would present its own unique challenges. Our sparse numbers will prevent us from filling out the standard twenty names on our scoresheet, our goalie, still unknown, will be sacrificing for the team by learning on the fly and at least a third of our roster consists of players with less than four years of experience playing the game.
Perhaps a staggering peak for some, but when you look deeper you see the potential for a special journey. A quick inventory of the situation convinced me that this was a challenge well worth the daily commute. Having begun my own hockey career as a sophomore in Rice Lake I have tremendous respect for those athletes who choose to take on such a demanding challenge. The courage and perseverance it takes to put yourself into an environment where your frustrations will clearly outnumber your successes is something to be admired. What a powerful statement in this day and age when experienced athletes balk at participating because their program doesn’t offer a clear and easy road to playing time and winning games. And as a coach how can you not be impressed with a players’ personal sacrifice to put their own agenda on hold and become a goalie for their team? Talking about putting the team first is one thing; actually doing it is the zenith of unselfishness.
Buried beneath society’s intense desire to win are the really great stories of the real benefits of high school athletics. Unfortunately we are more enamored with winning than building character. And this despite the fact that victory is fleeting, character is enduring. Look no further than our presidential candidates for proof that we no longer place a high value on a person’s character. Just win!
Nobody likes to win more and hates to lose more than I do, just ask my wife, but I have learned that this experience can be about so much more. When I began my coaching career five decades ago as a nineteen year old, my goal was simply to win. It was a product of growing up in the Lombardi era. Thanks to my parents and indirectly to my lack of experience as a player I began early to see the value of character development in athletics. And while I struggled to teach the skills of the game, I excelled at teaching the character to play the game.
During the season we will lace up our skates before every game with the intent of winning even in the face of what will appear to insurmountable odds. Ultimately we will learn to focus on the process and those things we can control and pride ourselves on doing just that. After a three year hiatus I am excited to again be in charge of building a team culture that goes far beyond the physical skills and knowledge of the game.
In my rearview mirror will remain the players from my past experiences. Saying good-bye to three teams has been dreadful and emotionally draining and only the excited faces of a new team can push those feelings aside. They never really leave you, because the relationships you build during a season or more is as everlasting as it is rewarding. And it isn’t the victories that stand out, it is the personal growth, the perseverance, the great examples of unselfishness, the teams that truly came together that resonate through the test of time. The exciting wins are fun to reminisce about, but the life lessons learned are the real treasure that athletics can uncover.
The peak of our mountain will be out of sight as we begin our ascent in November. Each day will bring us one step closer to our peak, a destination that will slowly be defined by our work ethic, character, knowledge and team chemistry. The experience of conquering the mountain will provide us with a great source of accomplishment and pride in having met our challenge.
I couldn’t be more excited because it is the climb that has always had the greatest appeal to me as a coach. And I have yet to find a mountain too high to climb.
Here’s hoping I never find that mountain.
Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher & hockey coach in Wausau, WI. You can contact him at email@example.com