NL football coaches teaching 'coping skills 101'

New London — It is a privilege for me — hardly a birthright — to watch high school football games from the sidelines. A true flavor for the game. I do not take the privilege lightly. My rule: If I couldn't hear it or see it from the press box, I do not report what I hear or see on the sidelines. This is the personal space of the players and coaches. I am a guest.

But there are times when my rule bends a bit, because something relevant must be shared.

To wit: Some of the finest coaching I've seen in almost 30 years here now happened Saturday on the New London sideline.

And it had nothing to do with Xs and Os.

It is clear that coach Johnny Burns and his staff are aware of their biggest challenge: teaching their players the coping skills necessary to conquer adversity. It is difficult. At times, seemingly impossible. But their efforts were inspiring.

Straight up: The single biggest scourge I see in high school athletics today is kids without coping skills. When bad things happen, they either point fingers — it was somebody else's fault — or simply quit. And it comes with alarming levels of anger, thus preventing kids from absorbing the greatest lesson sports teach: resilience.

I see it in kids at every school. I'll leave the reasons to the nearest sociologist. All I know is that engagement after enragement is one of the most difficult tasks assigned to an educator.

What I saw Saturday: All members of Burns' staff choosing to stay positive with their players. Asking for the kids to stay positive as well. Begging. Demanding. The words "positive energy" became a mantra.

There were many mistakes made during the 32-6 loss to New Canaan. The kids pointed fingers. Grew angry. And yet there was every coach — faithfully — advising that mistakes happen. They can be corrected. It's OK. Stay positive. I believe in you. We believe in you.

This is not always easy. Coaches get mad, too. And this is where sports have changed the most. No longer can coaches go the way of Vesuvius in the wake of adversity. Their anger only makes them feel better. It does not change the situation. It does not help the kids. It just makes for more angry people with less space to teach.

This is the part of coaching that can't be seen or heard from the bleachers. There was, presumably, ample second-guessing of Burns and his staff during Saturday's game. Call this play. Call that play. Use this kid here. Use that kid there. The standard stuff.

Except that coaching the Whalers — and many other kids at many other schools — requires a particular energy that transcends Xs and Os. This is about engaging kids where they are. And kids today cannot handle failure with any hint of self-awareness. Part of it is because they're kids, who need to be taught. It's what we need to be teaching at home.

We are failing.

Rather than allowing adversity to be the teacher, we jump to our kids' defenses and enable them. It's not your fault, honey. It's somebody else's. And then when mistakes happen, the residual effects are scary. Maybe it's parental guilt: knowing you're not truly there enough for them that creates the enabling mechanism.

But this is why sports are more important than ever in our schools. They offer impromptu college level courses on coping skills. Sports are often about frustration management. Many kids are ill-equipped at the beginning. But with good coaching — that means varying bouts of patience and tolerance — kids can learn that overcoming adversity becomes the greatest life skill of all.

New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli did a nice thing after Saturday's game, addressing the New London kids and saluting them for their effort. I hope the Whalers listened. I hope they listened to their own coaches as well.

This has a chance to be a good football season in the 06320. There's some talent here. If the kids hang in there and begin to process the message of their coaches, they'll win plenty. But more than that, they will invoke a learning process that will serve them for the rest of their lives.

It was a good day in Whalerville, despite the loss. The coaches truly understand their primary mission. I wish them much patience and much luck.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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