The Bachelor Coaches of My Youth

How the men—they were always men—who presided over my childhood sports teams gave me a weird and formative window into the grown-up world.

A ragtag bunch of male coaches.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Minor Leagues is Slate’s pop-up blog about kids’ sports.

During the seven years comprising my athletic prime, which lasted from third grade through ninth, I played approximately 500 annual hours of organized sports—soccer and basketball and baseball, practices and games, in city leagues and on school teams. The league teams were usually coached by players’ fathers. (My only childhood memory of a female coach is the excellent E.L. Konigsburg novel About the B’nai Bagels, the story of a Little League team managed, scandalously, by a Jewish mother.) But occasionally you’d get a coach who was not a father, just some dude who loved the game or loved telling kids what to do or —I’m just guessing here—had recently gone through a really bad divorce.

These men were considered by us kids to be some of the best coaches—immune to the kind of paternal loyalty that might make a dad play his son at third base instead of putting him in right field where he belonged, or the kind of overcorrective fairness that might prevent a dad from letting his son play all four quarters at center midfield even if that kid was the best player on the team. Plus, these coaches didn’t age out of the league when their sons did, so they had the most experience.

They were the most intriguing members of a world of grown-ups that was for us otherwise populated exclusively by teachers, parents, and grandparents. They seemed only vaguely tethered to the rules of adulthood, and they all looked a little bit like Tom Selleck in Magnum, P.I. I remember wondering why the hell they wanted to do this. I still wonder that. Three guys I grew up with are kidless Little League coaches now, but they do it together, and it’s sort of like their own fantasy league, with a draft and everything. I can see how that could be fun. The bachelor coaches of my youth stood alone.

Sometimes we’d go to one of these coaches’ places for a pizza party when the season ended. They always lived in townhomes or condos—exotic in a small city/big suburb dominated by free-standing houses—which were breathtakingly uncluttered by the accouterments of domesticity. Maybe they had pizza for dinner every night. I definitely wanted to live like them when I grew up.

The dad coaches were interesting too, for other reasons. You could tell a lot about a father-son relationship by watching the way it rearranged itself into a quasi-professional configuration, or didn’t. Coaches were more patient with their own offspring, or less; instinctively, even as a kid, you tried to parse which. Some seemed more comfortable as coaches than as fathers, their authority vested by a higher power for as long as they remained on the field of play. Other fathers and sons seemed unable to disambiguate their roles; there was whining and hectoring, and these were the teams you didn’t want to be on. And then there were the fathers who seemed only to be coaches, who wouldn’t let their kids come inside for dinner until they shot a hundred free throws on the hoop in the driveway. I was never sure whether to envy or pity those boys.

All the coaches, dads and randos alike, took fundamentals very seriously—so much so that learning them took on the gravity of moral instruction. You didn’t just hit the cutoff man or call out picks because it was strategically sound; you did it because it was the right thing to do.
I was a crappy hitter and a pretty good fielder, and I only ever wanted to play shortstop. But a lefty loses precious milliseconds pivoting to throw out the runner on a groundball, so I was never allowed to play there—despite the fact that on a team comprised of 10-year-olds, a grounder to short usually results, at minimum, in a triple. It would have been sacrilege.

Organized sports were, in some sense, an exercise in obeying authority, kowtowing to received wisdom. We learned to model a kind of sportsmanship and teamwork that stood in for citizenship, and we learned that to deviate from that model was to invite punishment or praise, depending entirely on your level of skill, your degree of exceptionalism. You could play what’s now called hero ball—selfish, bullheaded, sometimes breathtaking—if you’d already proven yourself a hero. The same principle held true in school; the consequences were entirely different if you were a known fuckup than if you were some kind of star.

And so during those same seven years, I also played approximately 1,000 annual hours of unorganized sports—football and basketball, with my friends, after school and on weekends, on the field and court behind our elementary school, with no adults in sight. These games conformed to different rules and mores. They were the way in which we sought to make our own world, simultaneously fairer and more lawless than the other one.

If there were fewer than 11 of us, we played basketball: full court, even if it was only three-on-three, which is a little insane. Football was tackle, which is more than a little insane, but nobody suffered a terrifying neck injury until eighth grade. (He’s fine now. In fact, he coaches Little League.) If a fight broke out, we settled it. If the game was a slaughter, we traded players. Talent and leadership were acknowledged without fanfare; we even learned to distinguish between the two. The stakes were higher than in league play. Nobody bragged about a Little League baseball victory, but winning an after-school football game gave you the right to talk tall shit to everybody on the losing team until we ran it back the following afternoon.

Teams were picked by captains, and captains were appointed by consensus: They were the quarterbacks when we played football, the best players when the game was hoop. A lot of people seem to have horrible gym class memories about the ritual of picking teams, but I don’t think it really fazed us. We all knew where we stood, and we all played together so much that there was no possible pretense of acting like you were better than you were.

And in the absence of adult arbiters, we had the comfort of knowing that whatever talent we possessed would be maximized. My friend Laz, for example, had gone through puberty at the age of 11, attaining the strength, speed and bulk of a full-grown man over the course of a single afternoon. For all of fifth and sixth grade, it took at least three prepubescent people to tackle him. This would have made him a coveted teammate, except that he couldn’t catch a football to save his life, possessed only a rudimentary understanding of the rules, and was easily distracted by interesting bugs during gameplay, so he was usually picked last. But if you could get him a handoff, it was an automatic touchdown—so automatic that eventually we instituted a rule against giving him handoffs. He could also throw the ball 46 miles, with zero accuracy, so if you needed a Hail Mary he was your quarterback. No coach over the age of 13 ever figured out how to properly utilize Laz, which is probably why he’s not a professional athlete today.

Kids these days, by and large, don’t have the kind of autonomous space that allowed us to do all this community building—a fact that is frequently lamented by the very people with the power to grant it. Or maybe we just can’t recognize that space, because it’s moved inside and online and takes the form of 1,000 annual hours of Fortnite, which might be worse.

I wonder about the effects of spending so much time being coached, if you have not also built a place where you can play by your own rules. That field and court were our laboratory, a place to figure out what parts of that keenly observed adult world to assimilate and which to reject. The real fundamentals? I learned them all there.