By Randy Traeger
Head Football Coach Oregon
It’s natural for every coach to focus on the kids who are exciting, involved, athletically talented and engaged. These are the kids you coach for right? Then there are those kids that are the “invisibles”. They add to your team numbers, and sometimes contribute on scout teams, but, let’s face it, they don’t bring much to the table and usually get lost in the excitement of game week. These are the kids that everyone says “They need football more than football needs them.” Is your football program the kind of place where “invisibles” can feel safe, nurtured, and challenged to grow?
The “invisibles” are usually the social outcasts. Why did they turn out for football? Who knows, maybe Mom or Dad talked them into it, maybe an administrator or a teacher asked coach to take them under their wings, or maybe a few friends brought them to practice kicking and screaming. In any event, they have turned out for the team and now you have the opportunity to change the course of their entire life….or you can ignore them like most coaches.
These kids typically have been force fed a steady diet of bullying, taunting, and exclusion from their peer group. Many of them lack healthy adult relationships and healthy peer relationships. They have become loners who feel like they don’t fit in anywhere. They feel like “nonpersons”. Quite often, these outcasts have bonded with negative peers who are the only people who ever offered them what they crave most…acceptance. They don’t think they could ever fit in with the “cool” people. They feel trapped and hopeless.
What can your program do to help the “invisibles” become “visible”?
- Make sure the door is always wide open for these kinds of kids to join your program. Talk with teachers, administrators, and parents and let them know that you are actively looking to help these kinds of kids. Invite new kids to team preseason and early season events. Usually there is a small time window to join a team, work extra hard with these kids to make sure they don’t miss it.
- Make them feel welcome. Have team members invite these kids to turn out and make sure they tell them about how your program takes great care of its players.
- Make your program a place of unconditional love (we don’t care how much athletic talent you have) and a safe environment for the outcasts and the weak. Remember…challenge the strong, save the weak from discouragement.
- Have “Zero” tolerance for hazing or bullying on your team. Monitor Pre-practice and post practice locker rooms. Make sure your team leaders enforce this policy with vigilant positive peer pressure.
- Teach the team about the philosophy’s “A team is only as strong as its weakest link.” and “The first will be last and the last will be first.”
- Don’t underestimate the impact that caring for weaker players will have on your more talented stars. When your stars see you loving and taking care of less talented players, it motivates them to even greater heights of achievement, because they know that coach loves them beyond the yards they gain or the tackles they make.
- Make sure your more talented players look out for your weaker team members in school. When a weaker player who has been ignored and excluded nearly every day at school for years suddenly feels welcome as a member of your team, it’s a powerful thing. A simple act of acceptance can change these kid’s whole lives for the good.
- Give the “invisibles” opportunities to contribute in real ways to the team. No kid likes to feel like he is some kind of charity project. These kids are constantly asking themselves “What is it that I am contributing to this team?” “Am I relevant?” “What’s my role?” If you don’t give them a relevant role that they can take pride in, they won’t stay with the team. This role could be as simple as maintaining the footballs, but if you sell it right to the player and the team (critical to wins and losses), it takes on a new importance. Perception is reality.
It has been quoted by many historic figures, “A society will be judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members.” How will your program be judged on the treatment of its weakest members………your invisibles?