What’s it like? That’s the questions I get from people I played with, juniors I coach, parents. What’s it like to coach at the professional level? What’s it like to get to do what you love to do?
Such a complex and complicated question even though it may seem so simple. I mean, how can you truly explain to someone how honored or how excited you are? How can you truly help them to grasp all that you feel to even scratch the surface of the depth of that feeling? I think that in order to do that, they would have to understand both the successes and the failures along the way. The times you felt inadequate. The second guessing, that lead to growth. They would have to understand all of the things that drive you and your fears too.
In 2005 my coaching journey started but my personal journey that lead me to where I am started long before that. Like many things in life, we can’t really remember the exact moment something began, we are just all of a sudden in the middle of it. Was it the first time I touched a soccer ball as a 6 year old in Flagstaff? Was it the feeling of scoring that first goal, or winning that first game that lit the fire? Was it countless clutch game winning goals where that feeling of being the hero for your team lifted me up and made me feel for a brief moment like I could fly? Could it have been the games in friends back yards where little boys were trying to prove their merit to each other by playing every game and sport imaginable? Was it being elected as the captain of my team even though I was not vocal with my teammates, but led with my work ethic? Was it the friendly competition between me and my teammates to be the leading scorer on the team, or tryouts for the Olympic Development team?
All of those things came long before I ever knew what volleyball even was? Each piece, each moment, each experience became a fiber of what I am and who I am as a coach. The failures too! Missing a game winning shot, letting my team down when they needed me most. Getting cut from the basketball team, quitting the football team because I just wasn’t cut out to play football. The broken shin, the broken ankles and arms. The torn ligaments, the dislocations. Each injury making me second guess why I ever even wanted to be an athlete. Perhaps I was better off just giving up my dreams of playing professionally. After all, only 1% of athletes ever do!
I will never forget my last soccer game as a kid. I had given EVERYTHING to that sport. I was REALLY good at that sport. I went into that last season knowing that my dreams of being a soccer player would be over at the end of it. I went into it knowing that no one, not ANYONE was going to stop me from winning a championship that year. 46 goals in 11 games later, the final whistle sounded, the season was over, and my teammates and I had won one last shining moment. Instead of excitement, I remember my friend Mitch coming over to me and picking me up from my knees down the field away from everyone else where I was crying. My dream had died.
The beauty of life is that where one dream dies, another is born. Four years after that moment on the soccer field, I began playing beach volleyball. The game took me through rec leagues and B level tournaments. It took me from being the worst in one division to ultimately working my way up to winning it and moving up to the next division. From the athletic club in Flagstaff to the qualifier in Manhattan Beach, getting to compete in professional beach volleyball qualifiers. Playing against the best of the best players the game has to offer, and getting to test myself as a player and as a man and again, failing. Never qualifying.
As any aging athlete knows, there is one day when you wake up and you just know. You know that you have gotten as far as you can go, as far as your work, your athleticism, and your fire could take you. For anyone who has given everything they have to something, you know what that deep pain feels like. It’s not just a loss, but a forever statement to you that you weren’t good enough. For an athlete that is incredibly hard to swallow. For most, that dream ultimately dies without ever reaching the pinnacle of your sport. In that moment, the moment you know it’s over, you can’t really process it yet, it takes a while, years sometimes. Then one day you wake up and you get it. It was never about the game winners. It wasn’t about being the hero. It was never about reaching the pinnacle of your sport. It was about the person that process built. It was each single fiber of your being that successes, challenges, and failures created. It was about how you handled your successes as much as how you handled your failures. It was not about who other people thought you were because of your athletic success or prowess. It wasn’t about the tiny bit of celebrity that being great at your sport creates within circles that fade with time anyway.
Playing sports brings a unique pressure to a person. Being the captain, the leading scorer, the go to hitter… Having so many other people counting on you to succeed. Sometimes you are the hero and sometimes you fail and let those people down only to have them put their trust in you again over and over to win in big moments for them... Having to look your teammates in the eyes and then get out there and battle with them again is a feeling everyone needs to feel in life. That kind of pressure strengthens those fibers. Some people walk away from a career in sports with regret, others with none. Some walk away and love the person they became as a result. Others get lost along the way and let their identity as an athlete be their identity as a human.
So, what Is it like? What is it like to get to coach professionally? What is it like to get to do what you love to do every day? Well, it’s another step in my journey, it’s another piece that adds to who I am as a person, but it doesn’t define me. I’m someone’s son. I’m a brother, and an uncle. I’m a friend. I’m a teacher and yes, I’m a coach. My failures have humbled me, my successes have driven me to find more success, and the balance of the two has helped me to understand that success comes in many different forms. So when I walk into the box to coach a match, I am just grateful. Grateful to get to continue to do what I love each day. Grateful to experience so many moments with PEOPLE. My experiences with life are what help me to be successful. While I have soaked up the X’s and O’s along the way and will continue to do so, what makes me the coach I am is my ability to connect with my athletes and to meet them where they are. From the kid who steps into the sand for the first time to the Olympian, from the confident athlete to the one who is broken, my ability to draw on experiences to make connections with people is what helps me to get the best out of the athletes I work with. We win together with humility, we lose together with grace, and we grow together with fire. What’s it like? I don’t think I could explain it if I tried…