Every coach goes through it.
You spend months working with a group of players to mold and shape a season. Countless hours go into designing plays and drills to help the team succeed. The time spent always has ups and downs, but through it all the team becomes a family. A special group that, in its current form, ultimately has an expiration date.
Now, the final buzzer has sounded, and that date has arrived. Some arrive more dramatically than others, but with the exception of one team in any postseason tournament, its arrival is inevitable.
Your season is over.
The words hit you like a cold bucket of water, and as you walk to the locker room, you search for words to console your team with. Depending on how closely your exit from the tournament matches your expectations for the postseason, you may or may not be prepared. Usually coaches have a feel for when the time may come, but no one wants to prepare a speech for this situation.
For your seniors, this moment will likely be one of the most painful memories they have from their time in your program. The harsh reality for most is that their career is over, the teammates they have spent years playing with will be going their separate ways, and they will all be moving on to a new chapter of their lives. Things will never be the same.
The words and actions you use can have incredible power to both console and teach, and will be indelibly seared into the memories of each player as they look back on the time they spent in your program. This may be the most powerful speech a coach can give, and has to be delivered while you are likely hurting as much as they are.
Every situation is unique. There is no instruction manual for how to approach this situation, but having some guidelines in the back of your mind can help you through it. Here are some of the guidelines we have used in our program to deal with this difficult time:
- Assess the damage.
It is usually best for the coaches to get into the locker room right away, even if it is in a separate area, because this is a highly emotional time and your presence will add stability to the situation and prevent any damage from being done physically or emotionally.
- Comfort the ones who are struggling the most.
Start by calming any players showing violent anger, then move to the ones who are upset. You don’t necessarily need to say anything. Sometimes a look, a hand on their arm or shoulder, or an arm around them is all it takes to give them perspective.
- Bring them together and speak from the heart.
When you feel the situation is under control, bring the team together. Have them in an area where you can see everyone and they are comfortable.
- This is where it gets tough. There is no script for this moment, and your emotions will be tugging at you no matter who you are. Even if you are great at keeping it together, you will likely be faced with at least a player or two that you care about staring back at you with tears in their eyes. Some ideas to help shape what you say:
- Let them know it is OK to hurt, and that you hurt too.
- Don’t address this game. The season and the journey are more important now.
- Point out the positives of the season. Remind them of the good things that took place that are making this so difficult for them.
- Tell them they are going to be OK. They won’t want to hear it, but something about hearing those words always helps.
- Remind them that they will always have a home and a family in your program and that they will remember the good times and experiences you just talked about rather than the way it all ended.
- Thank them, tell them you are proud of them, and tell them you love them.
- Encourage the younger players to thank the seniors.
The younger players will be affected by what you say, and will carry this into next season. Knowing that they will experience gratitude from their teammates when their last day comes will motivate them to lead positively.
- Give them the time and location of your next meeting, and tell them to take their time.
Telling them when you will see them again (equipment turn in, end of season meeting, awards night, etc) helps take the edge off of the finality of the situation. There is no need to rush to the end of this night. Let the players have as much time as they need together before going home.
Some years will be tougher than others, some teams will react differently than others, but handling the end of a long journey is never easy. Be the resilient role model they expect to see, and they will learn to become resilient role models by your example.
THAT is why you coach in the first place.
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