I've been thinking about coaches lately. Good ones and bad ones. Funny ones and ones who make kids cry. Coaches who ask their players to take cheap shots, and coaches who take cheap shots — or worse — at their players.
I had a baseball coach, when I was 10 or 11, who was the poet laureate of pre-pubescent humiliation. Let me be clear: This is not a compliment. This guy, who was a friend's dad and a lawyer, made a beautiful sport pretty miserable for most of the kids on his team. We weren't very good, sure, but we also weren't "goddamn ballerinas" or "fairy hairdressers" or whatever other epithets he and his enlarged spleen came up with, arms crossed, scowling behind home plate. (At least I wasn't his son, the catcher, who had to endure the bastard off the field, too.)
My brother had a tee ball coach who drank whiskey out of a Diet Coke bottle as he "coached" the kids. At least it subdued him.
In high school, I had a basketball coach who was literally three times my size: I was maybe a buck 20, gangly, and he was pushing three hundred, a behemoth. Mostly muscle and mustache. Hence his nickname: Truck. That was all we ever knew him by, so I assumed it was his birth name, screamed out by his mother as he barreled into the world like a runaway semi.
Anyway, Truck was not a particularly gentle nurturer. He picked us up by the pimply scruffs of our necks and deposited us on the bench when he was done with us. One time — and this line became legendary among those who heard it — he bemoaned the lack of talent on his team with a wonderfully cruel reference to "The Wizard of Oz": "I can't give Tim a brain. I can't give Mike a heart. I can't give Pat a jump shot." (I've changed names to protect the unskilled.)
Truck didn't call us ballerinas. But he did pull me aside after a series of admittedly boneheaded plays during a game and, in front of not just my team and the spectators well within earshot, but also in front of a girl I liked, he said, in his deep-as-hell voice, "Son, were you paid off by the other team?" If only. Then I would have gotten something out of that season. I quit the sport not long after that game.
A friend who was a much better player than I, who had as pure a jump shot as I'd seen from someone my age, quit, too. Basketball ceased to be fun. Baseball never was.
Why are some coaches assholes? Some kids thrive under that kind of animosity and pressure, I suppose. But I think most don't. I was one of the sensitive kids, obviously, and I needed a coach who was not a Truck, but, maybe, a mini-van with high-dollar shocks. And most coaches aren't. It's not fashionable to be that kind of coach.
I wonder how many of these bully coaches are trying to relive past glory — or exceed it — with underequipped kids? So when the team falls short, it amplifies their deep-seated feelings of failure. I know Truck played college basketball at UGA. I know he wanted to make it to the NBA, and may have come close. But he didn't. So it goes.
I did have a few good coaches who should be mentioned. There was my first tennis coach, Paul, who didn't call me anything worse than "Chuckles," and he still managed to teach me a pretty formidable backhand. (He also bought me, and a few buddies, one of our first adult magazines, during a tennis road trip; I think it was a Penthouse.) There was also Mike, the Ultimate Frisbee coach in high school who pushed us hard but with a sense of purpose and contagious passion. He produced national champions.
As a fan, I understand the mixed signals we send about the sort of coaches we want to see. I actually get frustrated by Larry Drew and Fredi Gonzalez, head coach and manager of the Hawks and Braves, respectively, for displaying the qualities I wish more of my own coaches had: over-sensitivity to the needs, wants, and occasional whines of their players. For being "soft." Maybe there isn't a contradiction in this: those coaches are paid to get the most out of adults who are paid to play sports, and they should push them if necessary. Be dicks to A-Rod and Melky and the rest.
I wouldn't have minded all the ballerina talk, come to think of it, if I were 24 years old and being paid a few million bucks to turn the other cheek. So let's either start paying Little Leaguers, or let's let them have some goddamn fun. They'll meet plenty of dicks later in life.