Coach Jim with one of his soccer teams

How the egghead kid became a sporty dad

As a kid, I was an egghead and an artist. I was a straight-A student in math, played piano, painted pictures, and wore corrective lenses. And yet somehow, as an adult, I have morphed into a kids’ sport coach as well as a sport and wellness writer.

It’s funny because I never considered myself a jock, and I more or less disdained sporty-types when I was in school. And yet here I am: a community soccer coach for 15 years, a dad to three athletic kids who have played at least a dozen different sports between them, and a writer who makes part of his living writing about athlete development.

What the heck happened? Why didn’t I morph into Albert Camus or Pablo Picasso as I had imagined and hoped?

I think it’s an important question. I suppose it’s the fault of child neglect and bad television reception.

I was raised in a small fishing and logging community on the west coast of Vancouver Island. My parents grew up during the Great Depression and embodied the do-it-yourself ethos, so they let me know it was up to me to entertain myself when I wasn’t in school.

We had a television. It was black and white and it was attached to a rooftop antenna that did precious little. When the wind blew hard out of the southwest off the Juan de Fuca Strait and it rained hard, the screen filled with snow.

It hardly mattered as there was little programming for kids outside of Saturday mornings. So I drew pictures, wrote stories, and remarkably enough, played outside.

There were a number of other kids in my “neighborhood” who lived in the same desperate circumstances. We would walk or ride our bicycles the half-mile between our houses and have conversations that sounded like this:

“What are you doing?”

“Drawing a picture. What are you doing?”

“Watching you draw a picture.”

“Do you want to go outside, play catch, and discuss post-war French Absurdism?”

“I’d love to, but I’m only 8 years old and I have no idea what you just said.”

“Me neither. I guess I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Do you want to just play catch? I’ve got two gloves.”

My friends and I were exposed to different sports through school gym class, so we had a modicum of knowledge about how to play a variety of games. At recess, we would either play those games with equipment borrowed from the classroom, or we would play some form of tag adapted to include a measure of body tackling.

(Parents in those days didn’t hug their children. I suspect the body tackling arose from a primal need for human contact.)

Outside of school, we would get together and collectivize our rag-tag personal collections of sports equipment to muster any kind of game possible. A few baseball gloves here, a soccer ball there, a bat, maybe a few badminton racquets, a basketball, or an American football.

We might play a game of scrub baseball between eight boys and girls, or a game of four-a-side soccer where the blackberry thorns represented the sidelines, or a one-on-one basketball tournament in my family’s barn where all of us took turns competing against each other while the others cheered their favorite competitor from the hayloft above.

(In our co-ed matches, favourites were generally determined by your crush of the week.)

As a consequence, I played thousands of hours of sports as a kid. I simply didn’t realize I was playing sports because there were no uniforms and no adults yelling.

All of that changed when my parents registered me for local youth sports around age 10. Soccer in the winter, baseball in the spring. I learned to wear a uniform and I remember the thrill when we received new baseball caps one season with the name of our corporate sponsor: Village Food Markets.

I was reasonably coordinated, and I developed a lot of skills despite having little or no qualified coaching. I had three or four good years and I even won an MVP trophy as a shortstop. Then puberty hit.

My arms and legs suddenly tripled in length. There was somber debate at my family dining table as to whether or not my limbs were still attached to my body. Whatever “athletic ability” I had developed during the preceding decade was suddenly null and void. At school, the girls began taking greater interest in the boys who had started shaving, and I turned to Camus and Picasso for solace.

Fast forward through 10 years of high school and post-secondary education where I immersed myself in books with titles that included words like “hegemony” and “dialectic”. I learned about cappuccino and I swapped my Village Food Markets jersey for a black turtleneck. I even composed and performed beat poetry. It was that bad.

Then one day I got married and had a family. During four weeks of bleary-eyed mornings in June of 1998, I rediscovered a passion for soccer while watching the World Cup from France with my young son. We were both so excited that we registered him in our local youth soccer club and I joined a men’s team.

(Oddly enough, I joined the same team that Yahoo! CEO Jeff Mallett had left not long before me. I did an interview with Jeff in 2012.)

This is where my journey into coaching began. My son’s experience in organized soccer was less than optimal. I am being respectful. It was awful. Lots of yelling, lots of bad drills, lots of perplexed expressions on the children’s faces. Not lots of joy.

I knew it could be better, so rather than be “that parent” who criticizes the coach from the sidelines, I decided to volunteer. I had a degree in education and a lot more playing experience than just about anyone else in the club, so it made sense. Giving back to my community and all of that.

And suddenly I was Coach Jim.

The clouds parted, golden beams broke through, and a mighty voice boomed from the heavens. At least that’s how I remember it (which demonstrates why the reliability of memory is often disputed in courtroom testimony).

Despite my delusions, I have since gone on to coach hundreds of kids and a dozen soccer teams. Along the way, I have also taken coaching certification courses in soccer. This legitimizes my delusions with official-looking documents.

But just as importantly, during all of the years that my kids were small, I also played soccer, basketball, baseball, tennis, and badminton with them at home, including their neighborhood friends in the games.

Good things came from those neighborhood pickup matches. Several kids discovered a love for soccer and eventually joined clubs, some discovered basketball, others baseball and tennis, while others found skateboarding and badminton and cycling. Those were happy times.

My childhood experiences, and those of my children and their friends, have taught me an enduring lesson: kids like to play “sports”. Sports exist because games like soccer, basketball, baseball, and tennis are intrinsically fun.

And my experiences taught me something else. You don’t have to be a jock to learn sport skills and take part in the fun. You can be a bookworm, an artist, a musician, a mathematician. None of these things prevents you from  learning and playing a sport. One of the best goalkeepers I ever coached in soccer was a Conservatory-trained classical pianist who loved Rachmaninoff.

This is why I am Coach Jim. I love helping to kindle kids’ desire to play, and I love watching them grow and develop as people as they pursue their interests.

In the weeks to come, you will hear more from me about all-things-coaching and how to raise your child with a love for sport and physical activity, whether you are raising a basketball player, a competitive swimmer, or a classical ballet dancer.

And by the way, even French Absurdists can enjoy playing a sport. Camus was a soccer goalkeeper.

Do you have a question for Coach Jim about kids’ sport and physical activity? Leave a comment below if there are any special topics you would like him to discuss.  

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