An Independent School • Grades 5-12

by Mike Lengel, football program head and head varsity football coach

Tradition is a huge part of high school sports. Kids join teams and coaches take jobs with excitement to take part in traditions like pre- and post-game rituals, cheers, songs, and awards. All schools have tradition in some form or another, and all schools do it differently.

I’m going to let you in on one of the most secretive traditions that exists for Lakeside’s football team. In fact, it’s so secret that not even our players really know it exists. But since I’ve taken the reigns of our football team five years ago, it’s been – and hopefully will stay – an important pre-game tradition. It’s a ritual… no, an INSTITUTION amongst the coaching staff so powerful that our attitudes, body language, behavior, and even our appetites are affected.

Ready? Lean in close so I can digitally whisper to you:

It’s candy.

Yep. Candy. The day of my first game as a head coach, for no real reason other than to start something fun to do before a game, I passed out a piece of candy – one secret I’ll never spoil is what kind of candy – to each coach on the staff. And since then, I’ve passed out the same kind of candy at every single game we’ve played, at exactly the same time during our pre-game process for the last five years. That first game, it was just a thing. It’s evolved in a major way since then.

Part of the tradition is HOW to pass it out (each coach gets a customized handoff); WHEN to eat it (immediately, pretty much); and WHAT to do with the wrapper afterwards – and that, readers, is where the tradition becomes less about us and more about the kids; that’s where the tradition becomes about mindfulness; that’s where the tradition becomes about why we do what we do, and who we do it for. We put the wrapper in our pockets, and keep it there until the end of the game. Then, when the game ends, we throw it away.

OK, that doesn’t sound like much. But stay with me.

When we take those wrappers out of our pockets, one of us will usually say “that’s a wrap,” a stupid joke wordplaying on the word “wrap” meaning the wrapper and the end of the game, but also a smart joke in that we take it to mean that game is over, time to move on to the next one, regardless of outcome. But it’s the time spend in our pockets that the wrapper really has meaning.

During the game, the wrapper in our pockets becomes a cue. This stems from my own learnings as a young assistant coach and a new head coach. You see, when I get stagnant, or when I feel lost, or when I feel insecure, or when I feel like I can’t help, or like don’t know what to do, I put my hands in my pockets. That’s just one of those things I’ve learned about myself over the years.

Flashback to that first season as a head coach. It was 2017. We had a very good run, an 8-win season, school records shattered, etc. But in our last game, things got uncharacteristically out of hand for us, and I felt completely helpless, and my natural reaction was to put my hands in my pockets. And what was there? That candy wrapper. The wrapper I’d casually been putting in my pocket mostly because I wasn’t near a trash can.

I think as a coach of any kind – head, assistant, football, tennis, music, painting, life – your responsibility is to see each student through to success, whatever that means to you or to the student. And a coach is a mirror of sorts, especially when the student is in competition- or performance-mode. If the coach feels confident, the student feels confident. If the coach feels helpless, the student feels helpless. When I feel confident, I’m smiling, I’m walking fast, I’m jumpy, I’m loud, I’m talkative. But when I feel helpless, my hands go in my pockets.

Anyway, back to the game. We start losing by a fairly wide margin. My hands go in my pockets. I feel the wrapper.

Remember that scene in the movie Ratatouille, when [SPOILER ALERT] Anton Ego takes a bite of the title dish made by the title chefmouse, and it flashes him all the way back to his humble childhood, and it reminds him of his mother’s cooking and that food is supposed to be something fun for everyone to enjoy? It was like that. (Should you get anything about of this blog, it should be that Ratatouille is Pixar’s best film, don’t argue with me.)

That last game of my first head coaching season, I felt that wrapper in my pocket, and it reminded me of when I put it there: at the beginning of the game, when I was bouncing around, making sure each kid knew I was confident in them, cheering, applauding, smiling. That’s what I was supposed to be doing; that’s my job as the head coach. Would I want my players standing there with their hands in their pockets? (Football pants don’t have pockets, by the way.) Of course not. So I needed to shape myself up. The wrapper was a reminder of how to be; of who to be; of how to act; and most importantly, what those kids needed from me. Did we win that game? No. But did we finish our season the same way we started it – with positivity, confidence, care, and trust? Yes. And that’s what mattered most.

Flash forward, about five years later. Our first game of the fall 2021 season is tonight, September 3rd at 7:00 p.m. At about 6:30 p.m., I’ll pass out some candy. Each coach gets a customized handoff. And from that point on, if my hands ever go in my pockets, I’ll feel that wrapper, and I’ll know what to do: smile, and go back to work.

GO LIONS!

Follow Lakeside Lions Football on Twitter at @LakesideLionsFB.