An Independent School • Grades 5-12

by Chris Hartley, director of athletics

Inspired by The Players’ Tribune series, Letters to My Younger Self, Director of Athletics Chris Hartley shares some thoughts and advice with a young man stepping into his first teaching and coaching role.

Dear 23-year-old Chris,

What an exciting time for you! You landed a teaching and coaching job in Pebble Beach, California – so far from that little town in upstate New York – and are about to coach your first football practice. You are stepping into a role you have dreamed about, one that you will pursue for decades: Helping high school-aged students find their path to success and happiness is what you have always wanted to do. Here you go!

You will make sure you look the part of a serious coach. That Cornell Lacrosse sweatshirt is the way you will show the boys that you are a dedicated athlete! You will stand tall with your shoulders back, trying to look confident as you introduce yourself, while hiding your nervousness. But you will do just fine!

Your first few years of coaching football and lacrosse will be ones of incredible growth. You will meet students who are incredibly frustrating because you see so much potential, but they aren’t willing to work. You will meet students who touch your heart because they will face challenges that no 15-year-old should have to meet. You will interact with students who appreciate your efforts and others who are frustrated by how you do things. All these experiences will help you begin to establish your own style as a coach.

I have some advice for you. It will make you a better coach who is far more accessible to all the students who are part of your team. In fact, heeding this advice might give you the opportunity to have more students come out for your teams.

Here it is: You will get much more out of your players if you encourage rather than reprimand; if you inspire rather than yell; and if you are intentional in creating a healthy, inclusive culture.

If you look back at the men who coached you in youth sports, high school, and college, you first need to recognize that their methods were not the best. Though you were motivated by being yelled at or singled out (or perhaps the motivation was to NOT have these things happen to you), kids learn better and flourish in an environment that encourages them to try, understand their mistakes, and be encouraged to improve each repetition. Giving feedback that shows you see athletes’ effort and offering ways to improve is much better than yelling or telling kids to run a lap.

You were lucky to play with some incredible athlete-leaders. In fact, you learned the basics of leadership in your time as a captain. You and your peers held high standards and worked hard. But you were not perfect. At times, you isolated some teammates. At times, you let your urge to win take over; you did not always approach opponents with respect and sportsmanship. As you start coaching, understand that one of the most important things you can do as the adult is to set standards and hold everyone within the team (athletes and coaches) accountable.

Goal-setting and culture-building take intentional work that begins before the season and must be infused into the daily life of your team. Remember, you decided to coach because you wanted students to experience all that is good about sports. Your work starts and ends with creating a culture in which every player, no matter what his talent level or his background, feels valued and understands that his role on the team is critical. Because of where you grew up and how you identify, you have a lot of work to do in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion. When you first start to learn about this, try not to be defensive; try not to let guilt stop you from truly understanding all of the different perspectives and all of the inequities that have led to your privileges.

One of the things I appreciate most about you is your passion. You work hard and you love people. Keep those two traits alive and well because kids will be drawn to them. But make sure that as you work hard, you also work hard at watching each athlete. Do they feel valued? Do they trust you?

Coaching is going to shape who you are as an educator and as an adult. It is, without a doubt, one of the best things you will do with your life. Be open to learning. Be an adult that your athletes see as safe, fair, and caring. And cherish every time your boys have their eyes on you as you speak with them. You will miss that the most when you stop coaching.

Be well,

Chris (at 50)