Thursday, January 27, 2005

Fielder’s Choice
By Barry Burleson


I’ve been involved in coaching youth sports since I was in junior college. In fact, I can’t recall a year since about 1980 that I have not been involved in youth sports.

That’s 25 years. That’s unbelievable.

The thoughts for this column came to me after coaching six games of fifth grade boys basketball in eight days. Like most folks, I don’t really have the time to do it. But it’s a passion. I seem to always be able to work it into a busy schedule. I love sports, but more importantly I love the kids. They’re a joy to be around. They’re uplifting. They help ease the stress after a long day at the newspaper office.

Some parents have told my wife Pam recently that they always thought I was a quiet person. That’s until they hear me on the sideline of a youth basketball game or outside the dugout when I’m coaching a youth baseball game. I’m constantly shouting instructions and always trying to keep the youngsters focused and enthused. Maybe I do yell too much, but truth is, I can’t stop.

I’ve never coached football – don’t really know enough about the game to coach it. But just last week I was told I might be invited to a football practice, too, to get the players fired up.

The rewards of coaching kids are many. Seeing the players smile is atop the enjoyment chart. More than anything else, at their age, I want them to have fun. And watching them come together as a team and learn the true meaning of teamwork are equally important.

The wins are special, too. Take for instance our most recent one Saturday in the Kirk Elementary Tournament. Our fifth graders were going up against a strong team of fifth and sixth graders, and we battled and battled and battled. I saw fifth graders making big play after big play and big shot after big shot. The winning celebration after overtime was fun.

The lesson in the next game was a valuable one, too. We lost. They were disappointed.

“Keep your heads up. We played the best two teams we’ve played all year and won one and lost one. We’re proud of you.”

This youth coaching thing all started when I was asked by Larry Armstrong, park and recreation director, in Hamilton, Ala., to coach an 11-12 year old baseball team. I had just finished my senior season of playing high school baseball, and as much as I loved the game and enjoyed being around children, I could not say no.

That first season and all seasons thereafter have been learning and rewarding experiences. I think it was in my second season of coaching that I also made the step up to guiding an all-star team. I don’t think I had ever been so nervous.

Before the first game, I reached in my pocket and tried to read the starting lineup off of a dollar bill. The sheet of paper with the lineup up on it was in the other pocket. I was embarrassed. The kids loved it and laughed and laughed. I think it helped loosen them up.

I later left Hamilton and moved to Mississippi. In Fulton, I met Tommy Chamblee, who asked me to help him coach, and he soon became a best friend. We coached together for a few years, and it was probably my most enjoyable youth coaching ever.

We had a child one year who was experiencing problems at home. We picked him up for practice and games and carried him home, too. It’s an example of how coaching youth sports is about more than coaching. It’s about being a role model, sometimes almost filling the role of a parent.

I even tried to coach soccer when we lived in Laurel, and I didn’t even know the rules.

The greatest challenges have come in recent years of coaching my own children, but so far so good. It has given me more valuable time with the ones I love the most.

As much as I enjoy it, I’m really ready for a break after 25 years - slow down a bit. I hope to take it this summer. I think I will buy some golf clubs instead.

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