An email pops into my inbox, it’s the weekly fall/winter coed rec league I’ve volunteered to sub or play in for roughly 15 years. I’ve often described coed B as the place “old” setters go to hit, and as such, I eagerly volunteered when first asked by a neighbor to play 15 years ago. As has been custom the last few years, I have to respond that I’ll be traveling for work or coaching a club or school team, and will miss the evening. You know it’s been a while since you last played when you do show up, notice a brand new divider between the 4 courts, only to be told it was 3 years old now…

A few minutes later, a ping comes in for another email, followed by 5 more, all responses on who can attend, which well named rec B team we are playing against, and who is buying the first round after the hour long exercise in stretching while trying to play something that looks like organized volleyball. The email banter is appropriate enough to read at work, distracting enough you shouldn’t, but fits the needed afternoon pick me up you were hoping to glance at when you heard the ping. The 7th email was a sub who had just been added to replace an injured player. As a 3 year absentee, who didn’t know about the wall divider, the first and last name on the email caused me a double take.

I make a point to attend the game the following week after the kids are in bed, it’s a five minute drive to the elementary school that hosts the rec league. They have enough players so I don’t need to shake off the rust this week. I walk in and am greeted by the standard “Norm” from cheers style greeting with my nickname. The school has a new divider that’s very nice I notice immediately. My smile gets wider as I see the sub. She is an adult now. She is loud, communicating, encouraging, smiling, setting, hitting and serving as I remember. She has a cannon for a floater, still misses her serve when she rushes her toss, still sets a nice 9 and holds the middle blocker well, and still loves the sport I was fortunate enough to coach her in. I chuckle as she tries to run through the new divider to get a shanked pass 60′ away, help was always a four letter word to her, and remains such 20 years later.

The hug after the game was full of memories, appropriate and warm. The recognition, respect, and relationship of coach and player was re-established instantly. I was asked if the shorts I was wearing were the same gym shorts I had coached her in 20 years ago. They probably were, and I was then congratulated on still fitting in them. I instantly felt like I was back in a small town gym in a small school with my first club team, hanging with a kid who wanted to learn about the sport I loved, and more importantly, wanted someone to believe in what she could accomplish. The whole team went out afterwards, and our conversations glided through almost 20 years in an extremely short 2 beers. I learned about her 3 sport college career, her induction into her college athletic hall of fame, her foray into and out of coaching. I listened intently about her travels to and from the coast back to the Midwest. Laughs, smiles, snorts, sad faces, sorry to hear that’s. I was ambushed with a flash photo, capturing all of my chins, followed by a facebook connection and “guess who’s team I’m playing on again” post. A team reunion was suggested, and the second beer was done, seemingly too soon.

Home late on a work night, I had to answer two questions before I went to bed. The first for my wife, wondering why I went to the basement immediately and dug in an old box. She said I was weird. I couldn’t argue. The second, I had to know what the kid wrote almost 20 years before in the end of year coach card, my favorite end of the year gift. All coaches get them, and for me, it’s become the item I treasure most. 

It’s in a box, in the safe, and it’s survived several moves. It represents many things, and contains some amazing insights into how I acted, impacted, and affected someone as their coach. Most eye opening when you read the short 3-4 sentence blurb, you realize what was important to that little human at that moment in their life. Usually you get a “thank you for an awesome season”, and the occasional, “don’t ever change” as if they believed they were signing a yearbook. However when a kid writes from the heart as most do, you get something special. I search the box, find the final coach card from that year, and read what she wrote. I confirmed in reading those 3 short sentences what she described in a hug and 2 hours over a beer, 20 years later. We believed in each other, volleyball or not.

I proceeded to read the remainder of the cards and notes I had, and the kids proceeded to teach me many things once again, 20 years later. I flashed back to kids I had failed to impact as I wanted to. If I met them 20 years later, and dug into my box of cards, what would their note say?

Keep and re read the end of year “coach’s cards”. It’s a free coach’s clinic wrapped in memories.

About the Author

Brad Van Dam is the lead coach for the Volleybee’s introductory program for Milwaukee Sting Volleyball Club, and coached U12 and U13 for the last three seasons.