For the player, coach, parent & lacrosse enthusiast in us • Grow The Game®

What I learned as a Head Coach

When I had my end-of-the-season meeting with the Athletic Department of the Keio Academy of New York, I was asked the question: “How was it coaching at Keio?”, which I couldn’t answer right away. Regardless of finishing the regular season with an 11-5 record and winning the school’s first league championship in lacrosse, my mind had so many thoughts and emotions. It was very hard to answer. Our playoff run ended just 6 days earlier and I felt that I needed more time to reflect in order to answer that question.

Over a month has gone by since that meeting, and I’ve been thinking about the past coaching experience a lot, actually – everyday. So, here it goes.

There are things that you can still control.

Prior to the job interview, I was asked to bring a resume with me. I brought instead, two resumes: a CV that was 6 pages long (cut down from 9), and a lacrosse coaching and playing resume that was almost 2 pages. In my personal opinion, I don’t believe in a standard, one-page resume as it limits you. One page, to me, means one dimensional – single minded. I wanted to show that possessing a strange and highly diverse working experiences in publishing, education, advertising, marketing, design, fine art, management and entrepreneurship was going to make me a very effective head coach. I don’t know if that decision would hurt me, but if it did, I don’t think I would be writing this article.

Sports and athletics, just like entrepreneurship, involves risk and chance. Take and create them.

Instead of cleaning the house, find out how the house was built.

Once I accepted the job offer, I wanted to find the best way to learn about the school and the lacrosse program. While I may posses the most knowledge and experience in lacrosse in that environment, I really had to get to know and understand both the school and student culture – manifestly, the Japanese culture, since Keio Academy is an all-Japanese boarding school. Instead of flexing my ‘lacrosse muscles’ right away, an open mind to see, learn and interact with an existing internal core, a set foundation, had to be the priority.

During their winter indoor league, I decided to watch the players compete, while keeping my mouth shut and not coaching them. It may have been unconventional, but through quiet observation I found the many different skill levels and mentalities that made up the team. A few meetings with just the captains, along with finding former players on social-media platforms, finally led me to the real strengths, weaknesses, the team’s history, and most importantly the existing culture, which were needed to make my master plan in the long run.

Always check your ego at the door.

 

Goals. Constant goal setting.

1 is a greater number than 0. During an indoor, preseason practice in the school gym I noticed many hanging championship banners and titles in other sports, and a lonely lacrosse banner with no titles for it. At that moment a new goal, a personal one, was made by making all the players take note of it, as well. I told my athletic director that my direct goal was to win every game, but we lost our first game of the season. After our 4th loss, which was disappointing, we made a firm goal to never lose another game and went on an 8 game winning streak. We lost our final game of the regular season, but at that point we already qualified for the playoffs and won the school’s first League title in lacrosse, accomplishing just one of the set goals.

Always remember that 1 > 0.

Everybody matters.

As a coach it’s very easy to lose sight and focus solely on your players, but in reality there’s a heck-of-a lot more going on and a lot of credit to be given where credit is due.

The Athletic Department was so crucial in coordinating with other schools and making sure the season schedule was up-to-date, and any last minute problems were going to be addressed and taken care of. The managers (I had eight of them!) made sure water was prepared for all practices and that the field was ready on game day. And on game day, the fact that there were 8 people on the managerial staff, enabled multiple eyes to track down every statistic ranging from goals and assists, to ground balls, clears, turnovers and other overlook details on both teams to fully analyze as a coach. The trainer and medical staff making sure athletes were healthy and cleared to play from injuries and other pains, endured from a long season, were vital with their honesty and dedication. And last, but definitely never least, the bus drivers who I really thought made the games happen, due to getting us there and back home safely. I made sure that everybody who got on to ride the bus thanked the drivers each time they got off it. Everybody had an important role and responsibility, not just the ones wearing the team uniform.

This, to me, is true teamwork.

Listen and Ask.

Somebody once told me “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”  In the past I’ve had both athletic coaches and work bosses who only controlled the talking. They got so into their talks that they seldom asked questions, or opinions. They weren’t approachable and to me, they weren’t very effective, either.

I made it clear that I would always have an “open door” policy, where they can feel free to ask questions and make suggestions, whether it’s on the field, or on Facebook Messenger. At the halfway mark of our season, I took the captains out to dinner and had them grade my performance as their head coach. The feedback was so important that you shouldn’t fear such things. Most often it’s the people you manage who can tell you more about yourself and help you out the most, but that’s if you’re willing to listen and ask for their feedback.

That’s called growth.

No plan is perfect.

Yeah, you may plan so that you can practice to make your plan work, but your opponent is planning and working, too. I kept a spiral bound notebook which listed regular practice plans and game plays. Only a handful of those worked and very rarely did each practice and game go according to plan. Looking back, that notebook kept during the season is now like a personal diary, or journal. To know if your plan worked or not, you had to execute it, first. While planning is important, to me, it’s always a constant work in progress.

A plan is ONLY perfect in the planning stage.

Beating the same team twice is the hardest thing in team sports.

And it’s funny because that plan used to beat a team that you had to play twice was most likely NOT going to work in the second meeting. The mental aspect also fluctuates for both teams, that it drove me nuts at times. There’s really no formula for this, you just know that the two games against the same team are never going to be the same.

Nothing is ever guaranteed.

The job that you take home.

You always thought about this, or most of the time. In the car, or on the bus to games, you were always thinking about something for the team whether it was awesome, or a concern. I remember March Madness and the NHL being on t.v. during the season and watching a few games and focusing on certain plays in college basketball and professional ice hockey that I could transition into lacrosse plays. It was always on your mind.

And that was always exciting to think about.

But, I NEVER looked at this as a job.

As a lacrosse enthusiast you couldn’t help but keep thinking, or doing anything related to coaching, not as a job, or a hobby, but because of a labor of LOVE – love being the key word here. And when the enthusiasm is a constant in your job, it doesn’t become one. It’s a very rare feeling in a work environment, that makes you feel real lucky when you can truly experience that.

That feeling was the true perk from the “job”.

Determination.

My favorite part of talking about the Keio Academy players was their ability to start playing lacrosse once they came to the United States, having never seen the sport before. In the 2, 3 and 4 years they’ve been in the United States for school and playing lacrosse, they have beaten U.S.-based teams with players who have started playing at a very young age. It really questioned the theory of having to ‘start out young’. I’ve always believed that determination is an overlooked characteristic in a person, and these players have proven the importance of it.

This was the most disciplined and determined team I have ever coached!

What I am really trying to teach.

Back during the interview process, one of the questions that I was asked from the athletic staff was: “what can you do for us?” At that moment I felt that I had to give them a ‘real answer’ one that was very authentic and high-brow, and one that I truly believed. To me, it’s both scary and amazing how much sports helps you in the long run – particularly off-the-field, in a non-athletic environment and setting. Most often, young athletes wouldn’t understand the true lessons or reasons why things have to be taught in a certain way in sports, but I’m a very high believer in transferable skills. In adulthood, after your school years are over, life throws some very challenging and unforgiving things at you that I’m sure the things learned in athletics will help out more than what happened in the classroom.

Our social-media hashtags were #DoTheWork #TrustTheProcess #WINatLIFE. As a coach, while I may be teaching athletes how to play a game, what I am really trying to teach are life lessons to use down the road.

Teaching is coaching, and coaching is teaching.

 

Hindsight is 20/20. My honest reflection.

Earlier in this article I briefly listed the past industries of my professional experience, thus far. I strictly remember each job title, or position, and with them the ‘canned’ requirements of: highly competitive, team player, multitasker, works well under pressure, able to work without supervision, and all those standard terminologies that seem to lack any uniqueness, whatsoever. You can’t help but question if the persons requiring those traits have ever played a team sport and/or coached one before?

What I can say is that looking back, playing lacrosse has helped me succeed in ALL of my professions, no matter how different they were from each other. When we won the League Title at Keio Academy, I was full of joy and happiness for my players, but there was also a feeling of sorrow and melancholy due to always being on the sideline as a coach, and never have been on the playing side with my players. My job as a Head Coach was a unique one due to the pressure, stress, nervousness, abuse, scrutiny and aggression that comes from, or created by the job. And ironically, those are all the things that you really do miss when the coaching is over.

To answer the question that I was asked at my end-of-the season meeting at Keio Academy is really simple: coaching, to me, was the closest thing to being a very competitive athlete all over again.

The night we lost our playoff game, thus ending our long season, a late-night Facebook message came from one of my captains. Regardless of the broken English written, the message was very clear and it really hit me, making me realize my role and relationship to the players and the program.

Thank you, Keio Academy, for such an exciting experience. Domo Arigato! Coach Vinnie

 

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