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When a Coach is More than a Coach

With the winter high school soccer season upon us, Michael Reles reflects on the team coach's important role in lives of young athletes.

In suburban Virginia, 50 high school athletes trickle onto the field and don their soccer cleats and practice jerseys. The coach pulls the players together and gives them the plan for the day. Soon the players are in action, running, kicking, yelling, joking, and happy to be doing what they love most.

Half an hour into practice, another player arrives and walks slowly onto the field, frowning and clearly distracted. He approaches the coach and says he’s late because he got in trouble at school. The conversation could have ended there, perhaps with punitive laps around the field. Fortunately, the coach does not let the matter drop. He senses something is amiss and knows this could be a perfect time to use his role as an adult influencer to make a positive difference in a young man’s life.

Mindful of the special relationship between players and coaches, and recognizing that sports provide opportunities for coaches to talk to students about important issues such as drug use, the Virginia High School League (VHSL) requires every coach to complete a challenging online course that emphasizes the principles of positive coaching. This training, detailed in the VHSL Handbook and Policy Manual, is necessary for certification as a coach at all Virginia public high schools and at private Virginia high schools that are VHSL members. Every coach must complete the course and pass a test to confirm his or her understanding of the material. Woven into the program is information on developing skills for educating students and their parents about the harmful effects of alcohol and drug abuse. The course also provides examples of how best to communicate with student athletes and how to make sure they not only hear the message, but fully comprehend and accept it.

Coaches influence a large and growing number of students in America. For 22 consecutive years, the number of high school students playing sports has exceeded the previous year’s total, according to the annual High School Athletics Participation Survey, released recently by the National Federation of State High School Associations. More than 7.6 million students played sports during the 2010-2011 school year, an increase of nearly 40,000 students compared to 2009-2010. The organization estimates that 55.5 percent of all high school students participate in sports.

Back on the practice field, the coach pulls the late-arriving player aside. He asks the young man about the trouble he’s in, all the while watching for clues in the player’s words and demeanor. Could it be substance abuse? At this moment, he is more than a soccer coach. He is mentor, counselor, friend, and concerned adult. His brief, targeted intervention is mindful of the lessons learned in the VHSL coaching course on recognizing the signs of drug use and how best to deliver messages that matter.

As it turns out, the young athlete’s trouble was minor and had nothing to do with drugs. Satisfied that no further action is necessary, the coach sends the player out to join his teammates on the field. It was a short conversation, over in minutes. But sometimes that is all it takes to make a meaningful, enduring impact in a young person’s life.

Michael Reles, a Budget Analyst at ONDCP, is a Virginia high school soccer coach, certified by the Virginia High School League, Virginia Youth Soccer Association, and U.S. Soccer Federation.