By Aaron Allen and RayJaun Stelly

When it comes to coaching high school athletics, most coaches at inner-city schools will tell you that their roles go far beyond just X’s and O’s. Pending the environment, coaches must make themselves available to our society’s most impressionable demographics, our children and in some cases, even on the professional level, athletes will continue to rely on the mentorship coaches can provide.

While there are those who think that we as a society place far more emphasis on athletics than we do academics, the reality is that athletics may be the one thing that can keep a young person engaged with the structured environment of an education system and save them from the pitfalls of the streets.

The Seattle Medium sat down with three high school coaches and learned that beyond teaching the fundamentals of any sport, the responsibility of coaches today is something that can follow them many years after their players are no longer in school.

Garfield Head Football Coach Reggie Witherspoon, Jr. says that it is important for coaches to provide their players with a visual of what respect, maturity and manhood should look like.

“Leading by example is the first step,” says Witherspoon. “Creating an environment that’s healthy and a safe space for young men to grow, and having a structured program that reflects leadership, which ultimately creates the buy-in for those young men.”

Coaches can become emersed in the struggles and triumphs of their adolescent pupils who can experience a diversity of developmental milestones, and a coach must be prepared to help with the challenges their student athletes can face both on and off the field.

“One of the biggest challenges coaches have is keeping athletes engaged after the season is over,” says Corey Sampson, head football coach at Rainier Beach High School. “Some kids seem to fall off when the season is over with. They seem to lose that four hours of discipline that we give them everyday and kind of just float around on their own without having anyone chasing them down, telling them to go to class. A lot of it is when the season is over is making sure that our kids are still on course, particularly in the classroom.”

Coaches can fill a variety of roles as it relates to their players. While there is not a one-size fits all solution, coaches have to be versatile and adept in order to serve their student athletes. At any moment they have to be ready to shift gears depending on the player and their needs at the time. From mentor to role model, to surrogate father or uncle, many coaches carry a significant responsibility as players will look to them for much more than just athletic guidance and teaching.

“Being a mentor, a father figure, an uncle, someone to help navigate athletes through life lessons [it all comes with the job],” says Sampson. “Some of these young people come from single parent households, with no guidance, so I make sure I am there for the guys as much as possible.”

Craig Jackson, head basketball coach at Franklin High School agrees and says that the role of coaches has evolved over the decades into more of an interpersonal relationship.

“Right now, I think coaching has evolved, no doubt,” says Jackson. “But I think the basis of it is that you’re always not just coaching the sport, you’re coaching the game of life through that sport. Yes, you are coach, but you are also a mentor, you are role model, and at some points you can end up being a surrogate father, an uncle, it goes deeper because sometimes they may not have those types of role models.”

Creating an environment that’s healthy and a safe space for young men to grow, and having a structured program that reflects leadership, which ultimately creates the buy-in for those young men.

Reggie Witherspoon, Jr., Garfield Head Football Coach

One of the things that the coaches can attest to is that they are human and are going to make mistakes, but what is important, especially as it relates to their players and how they perceive them as men and coaches, is how they learn and grow from their mistakes and utilize those life lessons to help not only themselves but others.

When asked what life lessons go hand-in-hand with the sports, Witherspoon says that, “accountability, leadership, discipline and character are very important tools that I try to instill in each of my players, so that they can indeed become great human beings in life.”

Witherspoon understands that youth will make mistakes, but rather than reacting to what is right in front of them at the time, he encourages his players to plan, make positive decisions and to think about the long-term gains that can be accomplished through short-term sacrifices. And the overriding message that Witherspoon instills in his players on a daily basis, is to “do something now that your future self will thank you for.”

Through sports life lessons can be learned. When taking young student athletes under their wings, coaches can use sport as a conduit to instill character and to teach young people how to be the best they can be. Speaking from his own experience, Sampson knows first-hand the impact that coaches can have on their players all-around development.

“When I chose to become a coach, I knew and expected that my relationships with players would be personal,” says Sampson. “I am a person who grew up in this environment. I grew up with just me and my mother, so I know what it was like to have a coach take me up under his wing and show me extra attention or give me that love or man figure that I needed to get through everyday life.”

“Being a coach is leadership,” Sampson continued. “And leadership and moving in a positive direction and navigating when things are rough and critical thinking. So being a coach is huge, most players look up to the coach to help them get out of situations in general, it could be life situations or on the field or in the classroom. So, it is important that we teach them how to act, how to react and how to conduct themselves.”

At the end of the day, there is a balance in coaching between discipline and compassion, work ethic and support, and Jackson believes one the most important aspect of coaching is finding the right balance to gain their trust of their players.

“The fabric is the same, but I think the style has changed where you are more than just a coach,” Jackson reiterates. “You still have to be the disciplinarian but at the same time you’re managing emotions, you’re managing mental issues, you’re managing how and where they can get help. It has grown, it has evolved into not just being a coach and you have to learn to balance that.”

This post was originally published on The Seattle Medium.