Dom Starsia, the head men's lacrosse coach at the University of Virginia, provides some thoughts between the relationships between coaches and parents as the 2006 season gets underway in earnest this weekend.
I have been meaning to write this letter for some time. This coming 2006 season will be my 32nd as a fulltime college lacrosse coach. It will also be my final one as the parent of a college athlete. I have been blessed in my career to have worked at two of the finest academic institutions in the country. There have been so many wonderful families and athletes that I have come to know over the years. Many remain as close friends. My daughter Molly started in the field hockey goal for Columbia University between 1999 and 2002 and my son, Joe, is presently a senior defenseman at Lynchburg College. I stand on the sidelines for a living and sit among the parents at every possible opportunity. I would like to try and present some perspective on the often misunderstood relationship between the two.
Let's start with the recruiting.....it would be immature and shortsighted for a coach to "guarantee" that your son will be an immediate starter nor, guarantee that another young prospect will start over your son. As a coach, it is a base requirement to make every candidate and their family welcome during the recruiting. As a parent, you need to be savvy enough to understand that this process is a predictive, inexact science, at best. Coaches may certainly imply that a certain sequence of events is likely to happen, but playing time is determined on the practice field. When we recruited two goalies in the same class a few years back, the "second" candidate considered his decision and asked simply, "Will I get a fair chance when I get there?" I assured him that there were 36 other young men who had a vested interest in determining the starting goalie.
My son made the final choice to go to Lynchburg College. My wife and I were comfortable with the coach (very comfortable with Steve Koudelka) and the institution, but Joe was the one who would be making his way and living with the daily consequences. I read once that "you become a man the day you leave home." I try to support my son in every way that I can. But I sent him away to college to become a man and that includes his learning to deal with the joy and the heartaches that he will encounter along his journey.
College sports are a competitive enterprise - without seeing him in the weight room, the locker room, the practice field, etc. on a daily basis, I am in no position to comment on the evolution of a coaches' decision that determines his playing time on game day. I believe I do understand how difficult it is to watch your son struggle with his athletic experience. I hope you will understand that it is near impossible for a parent to make an objective observation of that situation. My son is not a starter at Lynchburg and during games, I find myself watching his movement on the bench at least as much as I follow the action on the field. We evaluate the event through the eyes of our child....coaches' decisions, right or wrong, are made to put the team in the best position to succeed.
A true story....a parent came up to me in the parking lot after a Virginia game and asked if he could have a word. We had just beaten UMass, were undefeated at the time and went on to win the national championship in May. When I said, "sure" the dad went on to say, "great game, the team looks great, can I make an unbiased observation?" Uh oh. He went to make what could have been an incredibly astute observation "you really need to develop your defensive depth" if his son had not been the 4-5 defenseman on that team. Let your son grow up, bite your tongue a little, encourage him to talk with the coach, tell him to work harder and play better.
The parents have an important role while the game is being played. They are the ambassadors for the program in the stands. I have witnessed the "lone wolf" parent who prefers the solitary stance off by himself and the other who "prowls" throughout, some sit quietly and some are more active participants. Whatever your persona, your behavior does make a difference. It is mildly amusing to hear the tone of personal indignation that accompanies the comments from the stands about rules interpretations and officiating. I hardly know all the rules of our game and, as far as I can tell, accuracy is not a requirement for this vociferous "expert."
More importantly, support the entire team, its performance and the coaching staff in a positive way. We are all working toward the same end. We all want the team to win and play well. Negative comments make that outcome harder to attain. We had a timeout during a game, a few years back, when the players actually spent the first moments talking about a parent and "what the heck is he screaming about?" Here is a piece of advice that I have always tried to follow. Don't cheer for your own son by name. We know he is your son. We/he knows you love him. We all saw him make the same play. Use that opportunity to praise someone else in a more supportive role. Your son plays - mine may not. A little understated and unilateral encouragement is classy and makes a lot of friends.
Finally, the post-game tailgates. The ability of parents to make folding tables, Gatorade and Italian subs appear in an asphalt parking lot within minutes of a game's final whistle suggests to me that the story of the "loaves and the fishes" may have actually been about the first tailgate. While immediately following a game is generally one of the few times in my life when I am not prepared to eat, it has always been more about the fellowship of this event. Let's not lose that in an attempt to get "bigger and better." Everyone should feel welcome. This may or may not be a revelation to parents, but your sons are anxious to move on to their own post-game activities. Try and keep the athletic politics to a minimum. If you find a coaching staff hesitant to attend, make sure their spouses and children are included - the coaches will follow. After ignoring events at home for most of the week, we are looking to make up some ground.
I hope this is a little helpful. Let's enjoy a terrific spring...go Lynchburg!
Head Lacrosse Coach University of Virginia