Road Trip Dad – How Do You Do It?
Dan Witmer | January 27, 2020
I was talking with a younger lacrosse coach recently, and we were comparing our woes and headaches, and he caught me off guard when he said:
“You’ve been doing this – how long?”

I told him this spring would be my 37th year coaching lacrosse.

“Let me ask you, then,” he said… “How do you do it?”

I asked him what he meant.

“How do you keep going, year after year? Don’t you get tired of it – all the baloney, the kids, the parents, the administration, all the frustrations?”

He made me think, but I answered pretty quickly…

I’m an optimist. Despite the setbacks, speed bumps, and roadblocks, I have faith that things are going to work out. And the risk is worth the reward. Instead of stressing out about limitations, the weather or field conditions, or some players or parents who won’t “get on board,” I embrace the practices as well as the games. I’ve read somewhere that lacrosse is a fun game to practice (as opposed to sports like wrestling, cross country, or football), and I can honestly say that I look forward to most every practice. And game day? There’s simply nothing better. I love the challenge – me against you, our kids against yours. Let’s see how this turns out…

It also helps that I absolutely love coaching. Always have. Since I was in middle school, I aspired to be a coach. My role models were coaches, and I wanted nothing more than to be like them someday. It’s why I also coached JV and varsity girls’ soccer for 16 years, and girls’ ice hockey for eight. It’s also why I agreed to coach my sons’ youth soccer teams at Jones Road and their indoor lacrosse teams at Hopkins Road. Those Saturday and Sunday mornings and those Tuesday nights were highlights of the week.

“How do you do it?”

I simply love putting the puzzle pieces together. Whether I have six months to prepare (college), or six days (high school), I enjoy filling in the slots – starters at each position, of course, but also the LSM, SSDM, man-down personnel, extra-man personnel, etc. Even the weeks of old-school lacrosse camps, where coaches were randomly assigned a group of 17-19 players on Sunday night and then scheduled to play games starting on Monday, were a fun challenge. To tell the truth, I scribbled starting lineups in my notebooks when I was in junior high school, getting ready for the big game between our street hockey team and the guys from the other side of town. There’s no substitution for preparation, right?

“How do you do it?”

I’ve also learned not to whine about the players we didn’t have, the ones who didn’t come out, or quit, or got hurt. Occasionally, we’d slip and the conversation would go something like, “If only Johnny didn’t get hurt…” or “If we had successfully landed recruit Billy…” or “Too bad Joey quit after two days of practice…” and we’d start feeling sorry for ourselves. But then Dan Bartlett ’96, a former All-American player and later assistant coach, confidently and bluntly concluded, “Coach, we’ve got everyone we need.” End of conversation. That quickly became our mantra; no sense wasting time wondering about what could have been; might as well concentrate on what we’ve got. After all, we all know there are things we can control, and then there are the things we cannot. We need to remind ourselves of that reality constantly.

Look, have I ever had problems from parents? Sure (who hasn’t?). But truth be told, they’ve been minimal. There was the Dad who tried to coach during games and ask why we were playing zone – from the opposite sideline. There was the Mom who confronted me at a post-game tailgate and asked why her son hadn’t been awarded an assist. There was the Dad who came into our halftime talk to ask why his son wasn’t playing, and a hockey Dad who came to the locker room between periods to ask the same question. But all told, after some 60 seasons of hockey, lacrosse, and soccer, I think I’ve been lucky to avoid some of the nightmarish situations I’ve heard from colleagues.

I’ve written about this before, but I think I’ve helped myself a bit. I don’t claim to have the answers but, by nature, I’m a pretty non-confrontational person. I think I have more patience than the average guy. I try to be friendly and comfortable talking to parents about team goals, my experiences, and the team. I know other coaches who try to avoid parents, and I don’t think that helps…

“How do you do it?”

I was happy coaching at the College, but I’ve certainly enjoyed all the other coaching opportunities I’ve had since I “stepped away” in 2010. My sons’ tournament team in Denver, their Clydesider box games at the Onondaga Nation and in Prague, JV and varsity lacrosse at Oswego High School, and – who knows? There might be more opportunities to come!

“How do you do it?”

An understanding and supportive family also helped. My sons came to a lot of practices and games, and I dragged them up to Laker Hall on some Sunday mornings when I had work to do at the office. My parents and my brothers’ families quickly accepted the fact that if they wanted me to attend an anniversary or nephew’s birthday party, then it better be scheduled for a Sunday afternoon. In our own home, we were very fortunate that our four birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s all occurred between mid-November and early January – a pretty quiet time for every lacrosse coach.

Surrounding myself with good people also helped, and I’m talking about assistant coaches. Most of mine were former players, so that ensured that I knew who I was working with, and not every former player who wanted to coach with me was offered the job. Loyalty was seldom an issue, and philosophy and terminology were never a concern. To watch those men move on and become youth, scholastic, and even college coaches has been one of the most satisfying rewards of this gig.

“How do you do it?”

I work with a group of 18-25 young men who have different goals, different attitudes, and different priorities. The challenge is real – but so is the reward. If things work out, most of them will get on board the bus, buy in, and be coachable. There are always the ones who don’t and, to steal a line from Casey Stengel, “The secret of managing is to keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided.” You can’t ignore the guys who might be a cancer to the rest of the team, but sometimes you have to accept the fact that you’re not going to be able to change them, either.

But instead of having your day, week, or season ruined by one player, or even a group of players, I try to make the most of my time with the kids who are sponges, the ones who want to learn more, work harder, and get better. They trust their coaches, and they’re the ones who will run through a brick wall – or a big defender – for you and the team. I’m tempted to start listing names of some of my favorites, but then I’ll leave someone out, and someone else will get their nose out of joint, and what started as an attempt to honor and recognize would just turn into trouble. With any luck, you’re got a list of your own favorite players running through your head right now…

Then there is another group, maybe just as close to my heart – the guys who still hadn’t quite figured it out by the time they graduated and moved on… but matured a little later, and still managed to nonetheless say thank you years later. My response is always the same – just grateful that they got to that point in their lives.

They’ll say it’s a thankless job. Teaching, coaching (I’ve written many times that there’s really not much difference), working with teens as they mature, and all that goes with it. But truth be told, sometimes they do say thanks. Sometimes their parents do, too. Those moments help answer the question…

“How do you do it?”

Truthfully, my response is that it’s one of the few things I seem to be kind of good at, and I’ve been lucky to have so many different teams to work with. It’s a passion, and I hope I’m fortunate enough to keep doing it for a long, long time. And that, my friends, is how I do it. Thanks for reading.

A bunch of D-I teams kick their seasons off on Saturday. You and I will be looking at box scores before we even sit down to watch the Super Bowl. So here we go…

Have a great week, everyone, and – please – drive carefully.

- Dan Witmer daniel.witmer@oswego.edu

Dan Witmer is the author of two books.  The Best of Road Trip Dad – the Laker Lacrosse Collection  is an accumulation of 45 articles written for JustLacrosseUpstate between the years 2012 and 2018, about the history and traditions, the people, and the stories of the Oswego State men’s lacrosse program. The book is available on Amazon.com, and at the river’s end bookstore in Oswego, the SUNY Oswego College Store in the Marano Campus Center, The Sports Outfit on West Genesee Street in Fairmount, and Geared 2 Sports in Cortland.  ...and piles to go before I sleep - The Book of Wit  is his memoir describing his 33 year career teaching HS English and coaching at Hannibal Central School. It is available on Amazon.com and at the river's end bookstore.