22 Jan, 2020
by Mika Ryan
I have always tried to live my life “outside the envelope”, unafraid to pursue new challenges, including the writing of a children’s book! In an attempt to share more about myself I’ve included an opt-ed piece that I wrote in 2015 entitled “Diary of a Sad High School Basketball Coach”. It proved to be enormously popular, printed in numerous newspapers and even used in some university leadership forums.
Most of my adult life was spent coaching young men and women from kindergarten age to collegiate All-Americans. I also enjoyed 5 years as a color analyst for women’s basketball games seen on ESPNU, Fox Sports and the MSG network.
However, at the heart of my professional life was the desire to teach the game and the values that led to success both on and off the court. Some of these values you’ll see highlighted in Hank, the Therapy Dachshund.
Here is the editorial version of “The Diary”. Please let me know if you’d like to read the full version as it provides more background and detail. I would be honored to send it to you.
DIARY OF A SAD HIGH SCHOOL BASKETBALL COACH
When I began my fifth season as a girls’ high school basketball coach, I never imagined it would end with my resignation. However, I increasingly found myself walking into practices and games with the unsettled feeling that I was failing my players. Teaching skills accumulated over a long career no longer seemed relevant.
In a season that brought me to my emotional knees, it seemed I needed to get my hearing checked.
What? You’re not coming to our game Friday? You’re staying home to rest for SATs on Saturday? There was nothing wrong with my hearing. This dinosaur was not afraid to adapt, but at that moment, I had never felt so disconnected.
I was a pretty fair player at Piedmont High School in North Carolina, playing for one of the finest men I’ve ever known, Ed Griffin, whom we affectionately called “Piney” because he was tough as a pine knot. He demanded more of his players than we thought we could give and pushed us harder than we thought fair, but few Piedmont teams since 1969 have surpassed our hardwood success.
My love affair with the perfect game, basketball, continued in college, where I played and served as co-captain my senior year at the University of North Carolina.
And basketball loved me back. I met my future husband, Patrick, during my first coaching job interview. For 14 years, I coached at the collegiate level before retiring to spend more time with our three daughters.
My desire to return to the sideline was answered when I was asked to coach a local girls’ varsity team. Pat and I were only a few years removed from raising three daughters, all of whom played multiple sports in high school. Perfect, right?
Wrong! Nothing could have prepared me for how dramatically the landscape of sports had changed in the decade since our youngest daughter graduated from high school.
I arrived on the high school scene to find varsity sports inundated with micromanaging parents who campaigned for their children via email, texts and conversations with any administrator willing to listen. These same parents were ready to run interference at the first hint of a problem, lobby for playing time and coach from the bleachers.
Particularly discouraging were the parents and student-athletes who equated the opportunity of representing one’s school at the varsity level as just another activity on a laundry list of activities used to pad the college resume. Seemingly under pressure to do everything, student-athletes hustled out of the gym, stressed and sleep-deprived, yet moving full speed ahead to whatever was next on their schedule.
The increasing significance of non-school sponsored sports teams was disruptive. It was not unusual for a student-athlete to miss multiple practices or games for non-school sponsored tournaments in another sport. Meanwhile, lost in the desire to catch that college coach’s eye was the physical toll it was taking on young bodies and the increased exposure to injury due to fatigue and stress.
These problems, while not the only issues, weren’t insurmountable. But, accountability, the very fabric that held teams together, was in tatters. This was perplexing, given the resources and money high schools spend on leadership development. How can leadership be developed without accountability?
Many student-athletes were happy to be accountable when named team captain or asked to play a role in developing team goals or participate in leadership programs. But when things didn’t go well? “Not my fault, Coach!”
Many avoided responsibilities for individual improvement, blaming someone or something else rather than holding themselves accountable. And players who underachieved, missed practices and missed games were not held accountable by their teammates.
Ultimately, the head coach is accountable for the development of the program. That unsettled sense of disconnect continued to grow until I resigned at the end of last season.
This “diary” is not meant to paint with a broad brush every parent as a micromanager and every student-athlete as entitled and overscheduled. During the past five years, I’ve met some special parents and their wonderful teenage daughters. I thank these parents for encouraging their daughters to find their own voice, for providing guidance on how to maneuver through the obstacles and challenges that every sports season brings and for imploring me to “coach ’em hard.” I thank them for sharing a small part of their lives with me.
I think of Coach Griffin often these days and wonder what advice he might have offered on how to be more effective in today’s culture. He succumbed to cancer in 2008, but I will always owe a debt of gratitude to my greatest coach and teacher.
Upon further reflection, I realize I owe so much in my blessed and charmed life to this simple, rough, difficult, complicated, coarse and elegant game. I’ll miss it.
Mika L. Ryan, a Political Science major, Class of ’77 University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, began her playing career during the era of 6 – on – 6 girls’ basketball.