Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Why I really liked my U12/U13 basketball and soccer coaches.

U12 U13 coaches
2013 Port Colborne Sailors Bantam, my son standing 4th from right
Looking back, I remember exactly when I became an "Active for Life" athlete.

My U12/U13 sports seasons were, by far, my most memorable and formative.  During those years (Grade 7 and 8) I played school and club soccer and basketball.

My soccer coaches were Jerry Mastroianni and Lino DiPasquale.  My basketball coaches were Larry Cooney, John Conte, John Witlib and  Ralph Nero.  All important people in my formation, philosophy and methods as a coach.  I was very lucky to have them in my life.  Now that my sons have all passed through the Grade 7/8 phase of their life, my appreciation for their coaches makes me enjoy my own memories even more.

U12 Club Soccer. 

My U11 year was not that much fun.  My travel team had very poor practice attendance and we never did look or feel like a team.  I was a main player on the team which made it more frustrating.  For U12, I decided to play U12/U13 house league with my friends and my coach was Jerry Mastroianni.  You would never look back and consider Jerry a soccer guy, but I do and I still remember him as one heck of a coach.  He was only 18 when he coached us, had his own car and already a hard working guy.  We all knew him because he was also a basketball referee.

Jerry wasn't a house league coach in the sense that we got a half-program or just show up type-of-thing.  First of all, he made sure we were fit.  Two sessions/week, 8 laps before we got into any soccer.  Then, Jerry made sure everybody had ideas about their positions (my first time ever).  I can't even remember what he told us or didn't tell us, all I remember was he took the effort in making sure everybody felt useful and understood their job.  Games were fun, the league was fun and I will never forget Jerry as a coach.

It impressed parents that a young man like Jerry was as dedicated as he was to our team.

A few years later I worked with Jerry at a local pizzeria and still see him often.  I hold him in high regards.

U12 Club Basketball (travel)

My travel coach for U12 Basketball was a gentleman named Larry Cooney.  He owned a local funeral
U12 U13 coaches
2007 St Catharines Concord U12.  My son 3rd from right, top row
home and was a big supporter of local hoops.  Still, to this day, he is the namesake of the Welland Tribune's Basketball Tournament MVP and his former funeral home sponsored Welland's Sportsman of the Year award.

Mr Cooney made sure we could all dribble and shoot.  There wasn't much in terms of set plays, etc.   If I took anything from his sessions it was repetition and technique.  During games he was competitive and fun at the same time.   Tournaments were fun and he smiled at all times.  Don't get me wrong, there was a fire burning in him that we all felt, but we learned how to play.  Seeing him afterwards I realized even more what a gentleman he was.  I was proud to have Mr Cooney as my coach.

"All important people in my development, philosophy and methods as a coach."
U12 Club Basketball (house league)

Everybody who played travel also played house league.  John Conte was our coach.  John passed away at a young age but I will never forget him.

His knowledge of the game was sound and he ran good practices.  He could sneak in great one-liners while delivering his message while we worked on set plays, etc.  Our practices were fun and we learned. 

But what I remember the most about John was that he ALWAYS came to games dressed like a million bucks.  There were always girls talking about John Conte and that made him a king to us.  The fact that he was a good coach who cared about us was an added bonus. 

Games were fun, but he expected us to play hard.  He used to sneak out of work for a while (men's wear, of course) to be with us.  Everybody, all game, was getting information, heck for something and funny one liners.  We're talking players and referees alike.

The one thing about John was I heard parents compliment him on being dedicated.  Not sure why that sticks, but it does.

Right now John's brother, Ben, coaches my son's U18 team and I am glad to help.  I feel like I am paying John back.

U12/U13 School Basketball

When you played for St Andrew's School in Welland, it was an honour.  The school won 5 straight City and County championships, on the boys and girls side.  It wasn't by mistake.  John Witlib was the coach and he was OK with whatever you brought to training, as long as it was perfect and 110%.  As a student, you were expected to be better than everybody else, not just as good.  Marg Connelly was the girls coach.

Every year, after first report cards, he would go through EVERY report card for Grade 6 boys and up.  There was a list on the wall shortly after saying "The following boys are eligible to try out for the School Boys basketball team".  If you had one failing mark in any class, you were not on that list.

Every June he had a meeting with all boys who were in Grade 5-7 and gave us a training plan for the summer.  Every practice, 30 foul shots.  Every day during the winter you had to have boots, hat, coat, gloves and a scarf.  On game days, dress pants, dress shoes and button up shirt.  Your uniform was brought to school on a hanger and hung in the nurses room.

U12 U13 coaches
2005 Welland Wizards U11, my oldest son sitting 2nd from left
Over and above all of this was the basketball.  And that was a story all on its own.  We all had a ball in our hands so much during grade 7 and 8 you felt like basketball was the reason you were at school. (Mr Witlib made sure we knew it wasn't).

Mr Witlib was not only a very very good coach, he was a very solid man.  We all looked up to him.  He was athletic, well spoken, very funny and he cared about us.  On top of all that, he knew a hell of a lot about basketball.

U13 Club Basketball (travel)

Ralph Nero was a legend to all of us.  Growing up, playing minor basketball, you wanted to make Mr Nero's team in Grade 8.   He was a nice man, a VERY knowledgeable basketball coach and he cared about us.  During that season, I really learned how to play sports, not just basketball.  Mr Nero taught us how to play , technically and tactically.  We used to do this position during warm-up which was our defensive stance.  We held it till it burned.  Technique was super important to him and he could diagnose any problem we had with remedies.  So many good players passed through Mr Nero's programs he would have his own alumni association of university and college players.

It clicked into me as an adult that his real intention was to make sure we could all compete at the high school level.  over the next few years, when he showed up at your high school games, you tried harder.

Years later, he was coaching basketball at Niagara College when I started coaching soccer.  From there I learned one of the building blocks of the LTPD philosophy being propagated now.  He knew the college aged athlete and how to treat them.  I watched him with them and he wasn't the same as when he was with us at U13.  We had may talks about this over the years and I found it very helpful.

During the winter of 1979/1980, on Mondays and Wednesday, we would train at St Andrew's until 5:30ish and Mr Nero drove by in his big Ford and we all piled in to go to Plymouth School to train until 8pm.  Mr Witlib and Mr Nero.  Can you ask for a better situation to be in twice/week?

U13 Club Soccer (travel)

Growing up, Port Colborne always had the best team in our age group.  When I played for Jerry in U12 there was a travel tournament in Welland.  Welland had entered a U11 team to fill a spot and asked if I would play with them.  So I was a U12 player on a u11 team in a U12 tournament.

We played Port Colborne and after the game their coach asked why I wasn't playing for Welland U12 travel and asked if I would consider playing with them next season (U13) .  The coach was Lino DiPasquale.  My father never interfered with my sports, but he did tell me I wasn't playing travel soccer in Welland anymore.  So it all worked out.

Starting from January training at the INCO gym, I had been overwhelmed with so much soccer information that I'd never heard before.  When he pulled out a chalkboard to describe the new formation they were playing. I was in heaven.  The players were good, the training was busy and I was learning.  I knew most of the guys from previous years and basketball so there was no social barrier.

I had a slow start but assistant coach Jim Babirad and Lino both made sure I molded into a winger and success came soon after.  I was a big boy and they took full advantage of that.

Our games?  Well, I tell people our team was non-stop socializing up to the opening whistle and after the last whistle.  Family presence was important with that group.  The game, well it was a thunderstorm.  You were expected to produce but they prepared us to produce.  Lino was passionate, knowledgeable, volatile and caring all at the same time.  Looking back, I'm not sure how I would rate him as a technical teacher, but he could get us to play, and play hard.  I say that because I don't remember the technical parts of training with them.

Years later, we lost in extra time in the Ontario Cup final.  We were in the dressing room, upset, Lino walked in, big smile, sat next to our left winger, Mark, and slapped him on the thigh and said "That was one hell of a soccer game, eh Frenchie?".  At that moment I knew the last few years were the right decision.

I still see Lino and many of my teammates.  I will never forget that first year with them.

Those two years of my sporting life happened at the right time, at 12/13 years old.  That is when kids decide to quit or change sports.  For me, it cemented my passion for both.  I cherish the guys I played with during that time.  As a coach, you have that power when the athletes are that age.

Much of what I do and my conduct is modelled after those six men and their assistants.  I still see my coaches often and we always talk about our common sport.  They know what I am up to and I feel like a little boy again when they say something nice. 

All of my coaches were nice people from U6 to men's league.  But those two years with that group of people really stands out as the most formative.

So far, my sons all had fairly positive sports experiences during U12/U13 with soccer and hockey.  My youngest son was a bit nonchalant with sports but something has sparked in him this year, during grade 8.  Physically, he is the most equipped of my three sons.  Tactically/Gamesmanship, my middle son leads his brothers and my oldest is the most competitive.  Basketball was not always a good experience, but my boys still enjoy their hoop on the driveway so they did get something out of it.

The coach who assumes the job at the beginning of the Active for Life Stage has a very big job to do and their influence is huge.