The Impact of a Great Coach
You don't always have to be the star
(Content warning for mention of death)
I played volleyball and basketball as a kid. I wasn’t very athletic, always put on B team, and my coaches never dealt with the cattiness that came with being a teenage girl. So, I quit. I didn’t pick up anything except the occasional fitness class here and there, and that was well into adulthood. I’d been ice skating most of my life, but didn’t pick up hockey until my 20’s. And now I’m in the beginning stages of Strongman training.
Bad coaches were rampant when I was younger, and they still are. If you can’t balance all of the personalities in the locker room, shut down bad behavior before it starts, if you don’t know a single thing about your athletes, you’ve probably had an athlete on your team quit on you because they just couldn’t tolerate more stress from their teammates being bullies, or their coach not being supportive. I’ve seen it at all levels. I know I’ve been guilty of some of these small mistakes, but I’ve always tried to right the ship and get a team back on course. I always tried to know one small thing about each child I coached, whether it was their favorite snack, movie, player, team, and I’d try to build our relationship on that. Wins mean nothing if your players can’t get along with you and with each other.
The past three years, I was an assistant coach for our park district hockey team, the River Otters. I’d had some experience coaching kids’ soccer, helping run volleyball camps, and attended some USA Hockey coaching clinics. I wanted to nail this because growing hockey in my own community has been one of my strongest motivations for the past few years. So, while I worked in the Chicago Blackhawks Fan Development department part-time as my day job for two years, I’d then make the 90 minute drive back from Chicago to Belvidere on Thursday nights after being in skates for six hours, just to hop back on an outdoor rink for another two hours. Sometimes, I miss the way my feet felt after those long days, teaching kids how to skate and introducing them to the sport of hockey, and then coaching for two hours. It was so rewarding to see these kids having a blast, coming from completely different backgrounds.
I got to really truly know some of these kids. What their favorite teams and players were, how one player would always wear jeans under his gear, how another one of them would inevitably be about 15 minutes late every practice… But in doing that, I also got to know when they were having a bad day, when to push them just a little harder because we both knew they could handle it, when to call it a night because they were getting frustrated, and when to let them just have fun on the ice for a few minutes. I knew they always looked forward to our events with the Rockford Icehogs. And I didn’t manage that alone. I had a lot of help from Coach Rob Salley.
Rob had been teaching in the community for over two decades. He’d been coaching hockey, cross country, and track and field for a number of years, which meant he had a lot of experience dealing with kids of all ages. He’d always say, “a pass is just as good as a shot.” We’d talk about hockey in the community, how his kids were doing, complain about the ice conditions that night because it felt like nobody knew how to run the Zamboni at our rink, or we’d get an inch of snow during practice. I remember one year, we had to tie 20-some odd pairs of skates and make sure all their gear was on because it was just the two of us coaches running our anthem and intermission skate with the Rockford Icehogs. During the Icehogs’ outdoor practice, we’d try and snag a drill or two that we could run with the kids, because we knew they were there watching the same practice. We knew we could make some of these kids feel like the pros and that would be the highlight of their day.
His message to the kids, although he never outright said it, was that you didn’t always have to be the superstar. You didn’t always need the puck on your stick. You didn’t always have to take (and make) the shot. It was ok if you didn’t stop every puck, but move on and try to stop the next one. Get better each time you step on the ice. It was about being a team, hence his comments about passing. There were several kids on our team that year that thought they were Patrick Kane or Alex Ovechkin and would go end to end with the puck on their stick. I eventually had to tell the kids to pass twice before shooting.
It is so deeply important that kids have good coaches from a young age. A bad coach can ruin athletics and sports for kids for years and years. Great coaches know how to preach teamwork and develop talent both on and off the ice. They understand what their athletes are feeling that day and adapt their practices to suit and develop a team. Rob truly renewed my hope in youth sports coaches and proved to me that good ones do exist. The X’s and O’s are important, but it’s not as important as the bond you have as an athlete with the rest of your team. If you can’t get along with them, the X’s and O’s don’t mean anything. You can’t put high pressure and expectations on young athletes and expect them to win if you’re not also throwing your support behind them on their worst days.
Rob Salley was a great coach (and teacher, father, and husband). I watched his son, Ian, become an excellent hockey player and fan, and we talked a lot about Auston Matthews, one of his favorite players. I watched as Ian switched his number to 20 because his new favorite player to look up to was Nathan Noel. Tragically, Rob was taken from us far too soon. My heart goes out to his family, friends, students, athletes, and colleagues. He truly had a great impact on everyone he coached or taught and will be deeply missed.
The community has set up a GoFundMe for his family and any unexpected costs that arise.