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STS Coach of the Month September 2022

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September 29th, 2022 | Josh Adelman

Soldiers To Sidelines is proud to honor SSG (Ret.) Deborah Ellison U.S. Army the September 2022 Soldier Coach of the Month award. Coach Deb is currently the Harundale Rebels Youth Football Co-Commissioner/Player Agent/Fundraiser Director/Coach/Team Mom. She is also the Harundale Rebels Youth Soccer Head Coach.   

Deborah epitomizes selfless service because in addition coaching kids the right way, she also serves as a Current Veteran Service Officer, Disabled Veteran Outreach Representative, and Local Veteran Employment Representative.  Service is in her DNA and IMPACT is her superpower!  I challenge you to read her story below and not cry with tears of inspiration. 

STS: How has your military experience influenced you as a coach? 

Coach Deb:  The core values that the U.S. Army instilled in me projected a healthy country; therefore, I must hold on to the Army values. I was instilled with values such as: integrity, loyalty, duty, respect, honor, and self-service, and indeed honoring them becomes a way of life in the military. 

As a retired Soldier these values have never really left me after exiting active-duty service; they are just refocused in my civilian life. Becoming a coach for a youth athletic organization always comes with a training program to learn the fundamentals of coaching. These crash courses in coaching are usually one weekend or two spent learning the rules of the game and how to best teach kids to play it. They are designed to give new coaches enough skill to coach young children usually below the age of 12, through three or four practices a week and one game with an opposing team on weekends. What could not be learned in such a short amount of time is a core value belief system that as a prior military member I already possess. 

As a youth football coach, I had an opportunity to work with kids by using the game of football to help teach kids about the core values I learned in the Army. This was an incredibly rewarding experience and one which I will never forget. Oftentimes in sports we send our children the wrong message by creating a culture of winning at any cost. Indeed, the similarities between war and sports are many, with terms like “the shotgun” and “blitz” in football. A baseball player with a strong arm is said to have a “cannon,” and in basketball you score points by shooting. This is where the similarity ends and the belief in teaching young athletes the value of fair and honest competition begins. Many parents and even coaches have this mentality, and we have all seen images in the news of harassing behavior during a youth athletic event. As a prior military member, I can see past the mentality of winning at any cost by teaching the core Army values. 

Anyone can be taught to learn the basic rules of youth athletics, whatever the sport may be. But it is the respect of my military core value beliefs that set me aside as someone who is well-suited to work with children as a coach and mentor. Emphasizing sportsmanship, teamwork, discipline, and responsibility helps set the example for the players, as well as the parents. Encouraging proper code of conduct through modeled behavior helps curb violence and bad behavior both on and off the field. Also, as a female in the football world they players tend to respect me more when they find out I was in the Army. They also say if “Ms. Deb can do it so can I and it pushes them to work harder. 

STS: Describe a coaching interaction with a player, or group of players that has a special place in your heart?  

Coach Deb:  Coaching goes well beyond just the court or field. Effective coaching involves getting to know each athlete as a person. It was early October, and I was on my second season coaching youth football. On my team, I had a player, Camren, who I had coached from the previous sports and seasons. Camren was always a friendly and outgoing kind of person and always excited to see me and greet me with a friendly “Hi Coach Deb”. Midway through the season, Camren started showing up late and even missing some practices. When he did show up to practices, something seemed a bit off. Camren became less talkative and distant from his teammates. It was very uncharacteristic of him. I tried asking him how he was doing and if anything was bothering him. He denied anything was wrong. A couple weeks later Camren showed up to practice with some unusually placed purple and blue bruises on his upper right arm. Red flags immediately went off in my mind. I knew something was going on. After practice I questioned Camren about the bruises. Right in front of me, Camren started breaking down crying. “I don’t want to go back to school!” Camren cried as tears flowed down his face. My heart sank. I instinctively hugged him and told him I was going to help him out. It was an intensely emotional moment.  

I spoke with the youth sports director and voiced my concern regarding Camren’s situation. Speaking with the sports director sparked an investigation. It turned out, Camren was being physically assaulted and bullied at school and some of his teammates were a part of the bullying even a teacher was participating in the bullying. Knowing Camren as person and not just as an athlete allowed me to recognize something was wrong. By getting to know Camren as a person, it allowed him to trust and confide in me. I was able to be an advocate for Camren with his parents and they made the determination to move Camren to a private school where he is doing amazing. Also, his teammates that were bullying him no longer play on the team. 

STS: Tell your story about how and why you go into coaching. Discuss how coaching has impacted you as a person.  

Coach Deb: Have you ever had a great coach, whether in or out of school? One who not only helped you to master a skill or a sport, but who also helped shape you as a person? I have and that coach was the person who changed my life and one of the reasons I coach today. The coach that inspired me to follow in his footsteps and make a different in other people’s lives was my Judo Sensei. He was more than just an instructor he was more like a second father to me. I learned so much about life and how to deal with adversities from this man. I have carried these lessons with me since I was a 4-year-old-girl until now a retired army tank repairer/smalls arms repairer and soon to be a Doctor in Psychology. So much of my coaching practice is built from what I learned as a young girl, and I will carry these coaching styles with me forever.   

According to Merriam-Webster, a coach is defined as, “a person who teaches and trains the members of a sports team and makes decisions about how the team plays during games.” A coach is much more than what Merriam-Webster defines it as. To be a coach is to be a leader, a mentor, and a role model. A coach must set the standard and lead by example. Fifteen years ago, I began volunteer coaching my oldest daughter’s youth sports teams. This came at a hard time when I was an active-duty soldier. Free time was scarce, but I still wanted to work with the youth. Whether it was football, soccer, basketball, or softball, I enjoyed coaching and interacting with the children. Through coaching, I found a way to give back to the community. I realized I could make a positive impact by combining my passion for sports and my ability to connect with youth athletes. To be an influential youth sports coach, one must know and understand his or her athletes, coach the person, not just the youth athlete, and inspire young athletes to believe in themselves. 

September had finally arrived, meaning it was the start of the soccer season! It was a warm Monday evening in California. I could feel the heat from the sun’s rays shinning down. The smell of Coppertone was quite strong. I had lathered my daughter in sunscreen before we had left for her first day of practice. I was excited but a little nervous since it was my first-time coaching. We soon arrived at the practice field. One by one, the children began trickling in around the practice field.  

By the looks on their faces, I could tell many of them seemed a bit shy and reserved. I knew I needed to do something to help ease the tension. I gathered all the children, and we formed a circle. I stood in the center of the circle to introduce myself and I shared some silly things about myself. I then had each child walk to the center of the circle and introduce themselves. By the end of the first practice, the children seemed to be having a good time and everybody knew a little bit about each other. By learning a little bit about one another, it allowed the children to see that we all share some similarities as well as some differences, and that is alright. From a coaching standpoint, I learned that taking the time to get to know each player’s individual differences and styles allowed me to know what to say and how to say it. As a result, I was able to effectively coach and get the most out of my youth athletes. 

To get youth athletes to believe in themselves, I have learned that one must focus on the positives and the things that are done well. Whether it was during practice or a game, I always made a point to go up to each player and acknowledge that player for something that was done right. I always gave some sort of praise or recognition when I noticed an athlete trying hard and putting forth their best effort. It is important to build up a youth athlete, rather than tear them down. One cannot dwell on the negative things or mistakes made. It is ok to point out a mistake, but we must educate the youth athlete on what was done incorrectly and what they can do differently the next time. Former head football coach of the Miami Hurricanes, Jimmy Johnson, once said, “Treat a person as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat him as what he could be, and he will become what he should be.” Effective coaching involves inspiring youth athletes to do more than what they think they can. An inspiring coach helps expand the minds of his or her athletes into believing that they can achieve anything if they put their mind to it. 

I now have over 40 years of experience in the youth sports world, starting from my own experiences as a player all the way up to coaching, and I have experienced many distinct types of leaders (coaches) and team situations. Most of the teams were competitive in their league. Some teams won every game, while others lost every game, so I have seen it all. It is an incredibly rewarding experience that has relevance to my own life and work, particularly with respect to leadership. These are the 10 lessons I have learned on leadership from coaching youth sports: 

  1. Coach the team you have, not the team you want 
  1. Know your competition and know yourself 
  1. Surround yourself with people that fill in your gaps 
  1. Winning is important, but the journey makes the team 
  1. Focus on the fundamentals 
  1. Challenge you’re A’s (high performers), nurture your B’s (competent and generally skilled in one area, but they do not have a strong breadth of talent across all positions), triage your C’s (tend to be weakest members, they don’t tend to contribute much and sometimes can be disruptive to the team) 
  1. Manage your emotions (leaders set the tone) 
  1. Tailor your style to the situation 
  1. Drive your team’s growth (all teams learn and grow over time) 
  1. Set the vision and drive execution (leader’s set the vision and make sure players are on the same page, and create an environment within which people can execute.) 

Being a youth sports coach is a challenging yet rewarding position. Coaching is about connecting with the players as people and as athletes. Coaching is not limited to just teaching sports. Coaching includes teaching about life, about optimism, about persistence, and about character. As a youth sports coach, every youth athlete encountered will walk away with some sort of influence, whether it be positive or negative. Leaving a positive influence on youth athletes will allow them to build self-confidence and succeed in life. Like John Wooden said, “A good coach can change a game. A great coach can change a life” and this is exactly way I coach is to make a difference. 

Deborah has led a lifetime of coaching excellence and is still pursuing mastery. You can hear her passion and commitment to selfless service in her words. Soldiers To Sidelines aims to create thousands of Coach Deb’s who create the same massive ripple effect throughout our country. Congratulations Coach Deb, keep earning your whistle!

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