Have you ever had a great coach? The kind that inspired you, and taught you to be the best competitor you could be? The kind that maybe also encouraged you to be a better person? I bet you can still see the impact that a great coach had on your life, even decades later.
Have you ever told a former coach what they meant to you? If you wrote them a letter, what would it say?
Letter to Coach
You made a difference. All that time, energy, and effort you put into coaching us. It mattered. It had a lasting impact on us. Our lives were better because of the time you spent with us.
You may not realize how much influence you had. You may not know that we still remember you when we dream about youth sports. But your impact carries forward through us.
We remember the way you carried yourself, the way you inspired us, and the way you led us into battle. You contributed to the stories of our lives and to the adults we have become, and we are forever grateful.
Every Athlete You Ever Coached
I’ve played for many good coaches — there are so many out there, and they all make a difference. A good coach encourages us at the right times, shows us the right way to conduct ourselves on and off the field, and encourages us to be better players and better people.
I’ve also played for several great coaches. Great coaches inspire us and drive us to live up to our potential. They lead a group of young men or women with incredible skill and leadership. They teach us lessons that we carry beyond the field.
If you’ve ever had a great coach, you know the kind of impact they can have. Coaches play a critical role at a critical time in our paths to adulthood. They guide us and teach us when we’re growing from boys to men. They train us for life and show us how to battle both on and off the field.
The great coaches I played for all shared a few qualities:
- Skill. They were masters of their craft, and they knew how to develop players and succeed as a team.
- Leadership. They commanded the team’s attention and respect through confidence, strength, and ability.
- Inspiration. They inspired each player to try just a bit harder, to give just a bit more, and to put the team before the individual.
- Honor. They wanted to win, but also knew that there’s more to life than winning. Whether win or lose, they taught us to hold our heads high and come back to fight another day.
Great coaches deserve a special place in our hearts. I am forever grateful their contributions to my life and to who I am as an adult. I am especially thankful for contributions and great memories from Bill Stara, Don Shea, Jeff Rohrman, Norm Belden, and Sokito Chan. Although I later turned out to be more of a nerd than an athlete, these coaches had a bigger impact than they probably realize.
The Best Coach I Ever Had
The best and most influential coach I ever had was Bill Stara, my high school soccer coach. He was a soccer legend in Maryland, where I grew up. He coached 14 state championship teams over 24 years. He has held various regional and national coaching positions over the years. The Washington Post wrote an article on his high school coaching career and noted an all-time record of 341-37-19 — that’s incredible. I’ve seen how many players have kept in touch with him over the years — a testament to his influence.
Our team under Coach Stara was a force to be reckoned with: three state championships, nationally ranked, and overall record across four years of 70 wins and 7 losses — 4 losses our freshman year and 1 loss each of our sophomore, junior, and senior years.
Coach Stara was an amazing leader. He knew how to motivate us, knowing when to be supportive and when to put the fear of God in us. He was a master group psychologist and knew how to develop leaders among us. He was tough, principled, and knew how to win. I learned so much about soccer, and, more importantly, what it meant to be a part of a team.
I still have dreams about playing high school soccer even as an adult. I dream about it more than anything else (yes, really!). It reminds me of the intensity of our practices, the focus of our games, the thrill of victory and the depths of defeat. I remember the energy and excitement of being part of a wolf pack — our soccer wolf pack — that hunted together and devoured opponents.
Winning was fun, no doubt. But the bigger lessons all came from Coach. Some of my best memories of Coach Stara and high school soccer will stay with me for a lifetime.
A Trip Down Memory Lane…
Freshman Year (1996)
- I remember you setting the tone at tryouts and the first practices, letting the players sort into a natural pecking order, allowing the upperclassmen to become the team leaders. You knew how to provide just the right amount of oversight — enough to keep order, but leaving enough room for team leadership to emerge.
- I remember running 25 hills for every goal the other team scored. Losing to Wilde Lake 4-0 was rough. At least we switched to running figure 8s after our Principal saw our cleat tracks on the hill.
- I remember getting chewed out for missing one of the JV games. I was confused and disappointed, but you got my attention. It set a tone of respect that stuck with me and fostered the idea of putting our team first.
- I remember Billy Allen hitting the post in the first half of the Centennial game, playing against your former dynasty, which would have put us up 1-0. Before the game, I recall you saying (only half-jokingly, perhaps?): “If we win this game, they’ll think I’m some sort of God!” I bet we would have held that lead, had Billy’s shot went in, though Centennial alumni might disagree — maybe we can ask Matt Laycock.
- I remember our devastating 2-1 loss in the state final and your speech to us afterwards: “It’s okay to have tears. You probably feel like a cartoon character, who just got hit in the stomach with a huge missile and has a giant hole in the middle of his body. You’re gonna feel that hole for a while. And I want you to remember it, because I want it to light a fire behind us next year, when we will come back to win. Hold your heads high.”
Sophomore Year (1997)
- I remember our team firing on all cylinders, losing just one game the whole year. We were still a young team, but we were fast and hungry and played as a strong unit together.
- I remember Aaron McKinley’s dad playing the bagpipes as we entered the stadium, scaring the pants off of opposing teams even before the games started. It was the battle hymn of River Hill Boys Soccer.
- I remember sitting on the bench in the Centennial game after I missed practice the day before to go to a competition for the Math Team. You never said anything to me — you didn’t need to — but I got the message.
- I remember our seniors leading us through the playoffs. I remember your speech in the team room before the state final. You showed us a scene from Glory about carrying the flag into battle:
Then you raised up the River Hill flag to the team and asked us: “Who will carry our flag into battle today? Who will lead us to victory?” And our seniors took the flag, and led our team to a 5-1 victory.
Junior Year (1998)
- I remember just dominating other teams that year. I remember you talking about how we could now attack coming up the middle of the field, instead of going around the outside defenders like we did in earlier years.
- I remember how practices became less technical over time. You just put us on the field together in fierce competition in scrimmage after scrimmage, getting better every practice.
- I remember how you carried yourself after our games. You knew how to win with honor, not needing to brag or boast, but just being strong and confident. You rarely said anything to us after victory. You showed us that results matter more than talk. “Money talks and bullshit walks.” That was one of my favorite Stara-isms, and it’s something I practice as an adult: don’t bullshit success, show it — also known as: “Put up or shut up.”
- I remember your son, Matthew, playing with us at practice. He must have been only 10-12 years old, but he hung with us as best he could. I admired his fight and willingness to play with us. What a great player he became.
- I remember the thrill of our 4-1 victory in the state finals, winning back-to-back state championships. I remember getting yelled at from the sidelines the first time I kicked the ball away despite being on UMBC’s turf: “Damnit, DeForest! Keep possession and keep the ball on the ground!” It corrected my play and snapped me back into sync for the rest of the game. I remember the personal thrill of scoring our 4th goal and icing the win. What a team we had that year.
Senior year (1999)
- I remember the poster that you made for our team room that year: “1 title = Championship, 2 titles = Back-to-Back, 3 titles = Dynasty.” It was inspiring and gave us the vision that we needed. I remember pre-games in the team room, the music, the buzz of excitement, but also the seriousness of it all, for a team that wanted to win every game.
- I remember our team’s swagger in school that year, wearing our warm-ups on game days. Thinking and knowing that we were the best. The school looked up to us, and it was an incredible feeling to be part of it.
- I remember when you got ejected from the Centennial game, the only game we lost that year. I’m guessing you remember it too. But I also remember your apology to the team afterwards, direct and honest, as always. You showed us a lot of integrity, and, in the long run, that mattered more than the loss.
- I remember your speech before the state final: “I’m sad to tell everyone about my Dad’s passing this year. I’m particularly sad at this moment, because he would have liked to have been here, at this game. I’ve been telling him about how special this group was and what we’ve been building here for the last 3 years, the dynasty we have been creating. As a coach, I’ve never quite been able to get that third state championship in a row — the 3rd one has always escaped me. My Dad would have liked to see you boys make that happen for this team.” It was, truly, among the most touching speeches and memorable moments of my sports life. I’m tearing up just thinking about it as I write this.
- I remember the locker room at halftime of the state finals, with our team ahead 5-0. Matt Charamella got up and pretended to be the other coach in the opposing locker room: “Guys, I know we’re down 5-0, but we still have a chance! We can still do this!!” We all had a good laugh, and then you correctly stepped in: “We’ve had a great first half. Now, let’s make sure that we bury them in the first 10 minutes of the next half so that we crush any chance of a comeback. And then we’ll get our younger players on the field.” And that’s exactly what we did.
- I remember playing the last 10 minutes of my high school career before the younger players replaced us. I remember you letting me start the second half at center mid, a moment that you probably don’t remember but that was meaningful for me. We rode to a flawless 8-0 victory in the state final, and I’ll always remember the final moments of our three-peat:
Thank you, Coach Stara. You helped create some of my best memories from youth sports and taught lessons that will stay with me, well, forever.
Coaching The Next Generation
I now find myself on the other side of the field, coaching my own sons. I’m nowhere near the caliber of the coaches I had growing up, but I hope that the lessons I was taught ripple through to my own kids and their teammates. I find myself yelling familiar phrases on the field, like: “You’re in!”, “Swing!”, and a few others, and it makes me smile to remember my former coaches yelling the same thing. I hope that, in some way, I’m honoring them by following in their giant footsteps, even at a smaller scale.
Our experience with youth sports is so fleeting, in many ways. We all grow up and, in the long run, it doesn’t really matter if we won or lost. We’re all just specks of randomness in a vast universe, and, after all, it’s just a game, right? But for adults who played competitively growing up, youth sports taught us how to make friends, how to pull together in pursuit of a common goal, and how to be part of a human tribe. And it sure was a lot of damn fun, too.
To all my former coaches: Thank you — you made a difference in my life, and I’m forever grateful.
Readers: Have you ever played for a great coach? What made them great? Have you ever told them what it meant to you? Consider telling them.