I still remember the phone call I made in 2016 to my former high school baseball coach, Kenny Gray, to ask him if he could find room somewhere on his staff for me. I had just finished my first year in pharmaceutical sales and was fortunate enough to work for a company that promoted a work-life balance that would allow me the time to coach “on the side.” Coach Gray ended up having an opening—as a JV volunteer assistant—and I jumped all over it.
We run our program at South Florence (SC) High School from August to July, because that’s what it takes to be great. I’ve done the math on it and it’s roughly 1,000 hours over 200 days a year that we get to spend with our players with strength training, conditioning, fall open season, winter open season, the spring season, and the summer. We miss our own childrens’ sporting events, family dinners, holidays, anniversaries, vacations and much more. When we have a bad day at the field, sometimes we take that home, as much as we try not to. We remain hyper-focused on our program, a game, an opponent, players’ personal issues—and our families get less attention as a result.
The biggest challenge for me as a coach early on was finding the balance between being a great coach and most importantly, being a great husband and father. Years later, I’m still not perfect—but I’m a lot better at the intentional focus it takes to be locked in wherever my feet are.
When you extend that 1,000 hours a year out over the course of the four to six years that our players are in the program, you end up with thousands of hours of growth that you are able to witness. You think about what they were like as seventh graders at tryouts and how far they come in what seems like the blink of an eye.
I tell our guys that one day they’re going to record their last out here, but because of the lessons learned along the way, they will be prepared to go out into the world and be great citizens. The greatest victories in coaching will come many years after our players have made their final outs. It’s the texts and calls and wedding invitations, birth announcements, the seemingly random stories they tell you about the time you said this, or did that, that made a lasting impact.
Before I got into high school baseball, I was fortunate enough to coach some rec and travel ball with Kirk Corbett, a cancer survivor who was on a mission to make sure we helped our players become great Christians first, people second, and baseball players third.
Some of the best lessons I learned about faith didn’t come from Sunday School or Bible study. Kirk would gather all of our players and families around in between games on Sundays and he’d give us a brief sermon. I distinctly recall one of them being about wanting more for your brother than you want for yourself. It’s a message I still preach to our players—the most successful teams we’ve had all bought into that mindset.
Early in my coaching career, I modeled a lot of what I did as a coach from Frank Martin—the former basketball coach at the University of South Carolina. To the general public, he was a very tough coach. He had no reservations about coming unglued on someone, and it didn’t matter how many cameras were pointed his way or who was listening. I think people outside of coaching viewed these moments as “abusive.” I distinctly remember the reaming he gave someone during a timeout on national television. The outrage was coming from everywhere, but none of it was coming from the locker room. The guys who stuck it out for Frank Martin during his career all have the same story to tell—Frank Martin cared about them more as people than he cared about them as players.
As a former player and a parent of a high school athlete, I never knew how much time my coaches or my kid’s coaches spent worrying about how to make me a better person and a better athlete. We’re going to hurt when they hurt, be disappointed when they disappoint, and celebrate when they accomplish something— on the field, in the classroom, or in life.
As parents, we remember when our child’s coach pinch hits for them or doesn’t start them. What we don’t consider is the time the coach spends working with them, or the opportunity that’s been awarded to another player on the team. We immediately make it personal—“Coach woke up today and just wanted to hurt my son’s feelings.”
But this goes back to Frank Martin. One of the best things we can do for our players is to teach them that tough conversations are okay, intended to facilitate growth, and a normal part of “real life” beyond athletics.
I ask our players all the time—do your parents love you? Of course. Do they sometimes have to have tough conversations with you? Of course they do. Does it mean they love you any less? Of course not. It’s the same thing with us as coaches. If anything, when your coach does have those tough conversations, it further confirms that they are invested in their player’s life and wants to help them become the best version of themselves.
I had a boss named Tom Malick say to me one time, “I’m telling you what you need to hear, not necessarily what you want to hear, because the ‘cost of tuition’ right now is relatively low in comparison to what it will be in 10 years.” It was a great lesson. I had not been meeting the standard and the fact that he thought enough of me to have that conversation means the world to me. While the situation itself was relatively minor, he didn’t want me to take the same approach to a bigger situation where “the cost of tuition” (the cost of failing) would be much more severe. The more normal we make these conversations, the better off our athletes will be later in life when the stakes are much higher.
Another tough conversation is the one that’s focused on the concept that a large majority of the problems that arise within programs originate on the ride home or at the dinner table. Any negative comments about the team, the coaches, or the players from a parent to a child in those scenarios start a vicious cycle. Without knowing the full extent of what it’s like to be in “the trenches” with the team, many parents assume, and we all know the result of that. As parents we have to find a way to start looking at the entire picture, and not get hung up on the minute details that only surround our kid. Parents have to trust that coaches put the best interests of their program at the front of every decision they make.
When you look at high school baseball, it is not uncommon to have a champion that is not the most talented team in the state in their classification. When this happens, you normally can look at that team’s culture and it’s no wonder they are still standing at the end. It starts with the quality of those conversations and works its way into how they practice, the way they carry themselves getting off the bus, how they take pregame...into everything.
The teams with great culture just look different from the others. In our state some of those programs are those like Dorman (Jack Jolly), Lexington (Brian Hucks), AC Flora (Andy Hallett), and Berkeley (Landy Cox). I think the thing most people think when you mention those programs is “of course they are successful, they have great players.” While this is true to some extent, the thing that pushes them over the hump consistently is their commitment to the culture.
I listened to Andy Hallett speak for the first time at a recent clinic. He talked about his blueprint for how he’s run his program for the last 33 years—it’s not shocking that they have won seven state championships. One of the biggest takeaways I got from his talk was the attention to detail he puts on the parts of the program that nobody really talks about: making sure guys look the same at practice, for example. Why? Because it takes the “me” out of the equation, and it screams “We take care of the little things, all the way down to the color of our belt.” I look at what Brian Hucks does with his guys in the fall—once a week he makes them go out and work on the field so they can appreciate the great facility they have. When you put sweat equity into making something look great, it hits differently—it makes you take ownership in your facilities and therefore the weight room, your development, being a great teammate, etc. And there are so many other great examples throughout South Carolina and the rest of the country, for that matter.
I’m blessed to get to do what I do as an assistant high school baseball coach. It’s a tremendous blessing to be able to help shape the lives of young men at one of the most critical stages of their lives. Our value as coaches is in the aforementioned lessons we teach these young men every day that are going to help them go execute in the game of life—that’s the most important victory they will ever earn.
I’ll be forever grateful to Coach Kenny Gray—not only for what he did for me when I played for him, but for what he’s done for me as a coach. He didn’t have to take a chance on me—given my questionable track record as a player in high school and college—but he did anyway. He was the ultimate player’s coach and was always looking for a way to help someone out, and I think he saw an opportunity to do that for me again as an adult—as he did many times for me as his player.
I’m also so grateful for my wife, who may not have understood just what we were getting ourselves into six years ago. The greatest sacrifice in coaching comes from the family of the coaches—not from the coaches themselves.