Smart coaches should listen to dumb critics

It’s no secret that coaches don’t like being criticized, even though it’s an inevitability of the job.

From youth league to professional, there’s always someone who thinks a coach can do a better job in a certain area. Heck, part of my job as a sports writer is to voice my opinion if a coach acts foolishly or says something deemed inappropriate.

Criticism comes with the territory. That may be part of the reason there are coaches who accept — and even embrace — criticism. For one, it can be used as motivation to improve. And honestly, the smart coaches critique their own work more harshly than anyone else.

That’s where the premise of this column comes to light, because in this instance the coach is me, and I’m also the one doing the critiquing.

As a leader of young men (let’s leave the school and sport out because neither are relevant to the point), I have a responsibility to do what’s best for student-athletes, and sometimes the right thing is hard to see. Take the previous term “student-athlete,” for example. Competitive coaches want to win and will do all they can to help their “athletes” reach their full potential in sports, and that’s where the “student” part can get lost.

One of the wiser features of the programs I’ve seen as a reporter and a coach is known as “study tables.” It’s basically a study hall before practice that gives kids time to do homework and anything else school-related. The problem is that it often cuts into practice time, so a coach must choose between bettering the athlete or the student.

A different predicament arose this past season, when a student of mine, who was a captain on the team, missed more than half of practice twice a week for the entirety of the season so he could go to prep bowl practice. A lot of coaches would scoff at the idea of a student “blowing off” practice for prep bowl, which is not a required class but more of an extracurricular activity. I must admit, I was a bit frustrated by the time he missed and often asked if it was absolutely necessary that he attend. He said it was, and I obliged — somewhat hesitantly.

I’ve never poked fun at kids who prefer to build their minds more than their bodies. They usually end up being my doctor, running their own business or helping me brush a speeding ticket under the rug at their law practice. Furthermore, it infuriates me when kids try to make fun of another for studying hard or taking part in things such as prep bowl — especially during a time when bullying and wisecracks seem to be more of a problem than ever.

At the same time, I want everyone on the team to compete at a high level, and when a captain is missing a lot of practice, questions are asked. When prep bowl is the answer, kids aren’t always as understanding as to why it’s important.

Everyone takes enjoyment in the different wonders of life. Nothing at all is wrong with a kid who enjoys outsmarting people rather than outmuscling them. In fact, it’s probably a better route. Wit also is a big part of sports. Coaches must create game plans. The smarter athlete generally finds a way to win before one focused on physical ability. So, again, his intelligence was more important than practice time.

Anyway, back to the story. As much as this kid focused on prep bowl (sometimes I wonder if he was at Wendy’s, and there was actually only one practice per week), I felt the need to see him in action. The annual Trumbull County Educational Service Center prep bowl competition was at Lordstown High School, so I promised to attend the event. I’m glad I did.

He and his team made it to the championship match, and despite a large deficit, tied the event in the final round. That meant there was one question, and whichever team answered it correctly first won the tournament. It didn’t take long for one of his teammates to answer the question, which read: What is the fraction form, in simplest terms, for 0.80 (the answer is four-fifths).

The dramatic finish was exciting, and the looks on the kids’ faces was priceless. It was just as gratifying seeing the look of accomplishment on his face as it was for any sporting event, and if that’s what he enjoys, I’m glad I didn’t take that chance away from him.

It was a lesson learned for a coach who forgot about study tables this year and had two kids fall ineligible. Sometimes, it takes someone smart to help a dumb coach realize what’s most important.