The first player I ever coached

My first coaching experience came 8 years ago when I volunteered to help out with Doc's Lacrosse in New York City. When I signed up to be a volunteer coach, I had no idea that I would love it as much I do. 

As I walked off the field that rainy Tuesday evening, headed to the subway to catch the 6 train back in Manhattan, a man approached me, and like a typical New Yorker, he cut right to the point. "Excuse me. How much do you charge for private lessons?" Sneaking a peek behind both of my shoulders to ensure the question was aimed at me, I hesitated and replied nervously. "Hello, I'm Matt, and I'd love to work with your son. How does Sunday this weekend sound?" He laughed out loud, then responded, "Sorry, I'm Craig, my son's name is Arden, and will 8 AM Sunday work?" We shook hands, he got into his SUV, and I headed off to the subway. 

Having never previously conceived the notion of private lessons, I literally obsessed all day on Saturday about the type of drills we were going to do and the techniques we would go over. One refinement after another was made until the large waste bucket in my tiny apartment was overflowing with crumpled balls of paper filled with chicken scratch diagrams of various lacrosse plays. I wish I could say that I went to bed that night feeling confident that the next day’s lesson would be a success, but the truth was that I was nervous as heck. 

I'm not sure of the time that I woke up that Sunday morning, but I'm certain it was well before my ears heard the familiar, distinct sounds of garbage being collected in the city that never sleeps. My body filled with nervous energy, I grabbed my d-pole, notebook, and headed off to Chelsea Piers.

When I arrived, Craig and Arden were already there sitting on a metal bench. Arden had just finished up a hockey game and was wearing baggy shorts, a lacrosse penny, and the most colorful looking neon pink socks pulled high. I introduced myself to Arden and off we went.

At the time Arden was in 6th grade, no more than 5 feet tall, and the only thing quicker than his feet was his eagerness to play. He wanted to play everything, and when I say everything, I mean literally everything. For example, there were the days where I would plan sessions that centered around groundball work and defensive stick checks. Then I would see that Arden had brought his goalie stick and helmet because he wanted to try out the position. So, we did. One day, he came to the field with a short stick, a d-pole, and a goalie stick and asked me, “'Which one do you want?” On occasion, his father Craig would shoot me a look like, welcome to my world, where the fun never stops. And that's exactly what Arden was: fun. He loved to play and the only time he would ever get upset was when we would have to wrap up the session.  

For the next two summers, Arden and I would meet almost every Saturday and sometimes Sunday in the morning and practice. Over that time, I was fortunate enough to watch Arden grow from a playful kid who liked lacrosse to a pretty darn good 8th-grade lacrosse player and a mature teenager (oxymoron). The three constants during this period were: (1) Arden's overwhelming enthusiasm every time he stepped on the field; (2) my overarching belief that to make the most of each session I needed to connect with Arden on a personal level to find ways to keep him focused; and (3) the most distinct colorful knee-high socks. 

Many coaches have different styles and approaches. I have played for both the “no-nonsense” as well as “the player’s coach”. It is my opinion that one style is not better than the other. Rather for me, I choose to be a “connected coach” because I wholeheartedly believe that the number one goal in coaching for any sport is helping educate a player both on and off the field. And to do so, you must find a way to connect with them on a personal level first so that you can begin building trust. Ralph Waldo Emerson once noted that “the secret to education lies in respecting the pupil”, and that is exactly what I learned during that first session with Arden and it's my trusted compass that I rely on every time I meet a new player no matter the age or skill level.

In case anyone is wondering what happened to Arden, let's just say he's now not wearing crazy colored socks anymore. Now, he proudly wears the Fighting Irish green and gold, as he is freshman defenseman at Notre Dame this fall. The young boy who once thought he may want to be a goalie was instead ranked as the number  #3 High School recruit in the nation in 2017. I drove down to Connecticut last spring to catch a game as he helped lead Darien HS to the consensus number one high school team in the nation. As I watched him play, I was amazed by how developed his game was. He played the defense position better than I ever had as well as any high school player I ever saw play. And yet, he was still smiling and having as much fun as he used to at Chelsea Piers.  

Arden and I still text regularly, as I do with the majority of the players and parents I have coached. The topics range from lacrosse techniques to work internships to when are we playing golf again. In fact, Craig and I are also still close and we often try to get together to watch Arden play. To me, these connections go well beyond player/coach but rather are life-long relationships that I cherish. And these relationships are what makes me a better dad, boss, and friend. 

It's always nice to take a minute and reflect back to where you started. However, I couldn't be more excited to look ahead to next week's first Scoop’s Lacrosse clinic where I will get to connect with a whole new group of lacrosse players and have fun.  

- Coach Bels

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