This morning, Susan interrupted my Zoom to give me an update on the day. “…and Eli’s getting together with a friend this afternoon.” Grrr. I wanted us to go bike riding in the woods later on. It said so right on the meeting agenda: 1:30 – go bike riding in your local forest. Over the next hour, I formulated a plan. I could ride the gravel roads out behind the reservoir alone. It’s something I always wanted to do.

My day started with the PA interscholastic Cycle League Leader Summit. Fancy name, I simply call it mountain bike coach training—pep talks, communication strategies, motivational speakers. I need it all. Badly! I really don’t have the right personality to be a coach. My brain works slowly. I can’t think on my feet. I say the wrong thing… or nothing at all. I ride up next to a kid at practice. “Hey, what’s up?”

“Not much, Coach Jeff.” This is where the other coaches slip easily into witty banter, skillfully riding a skinny bridge between ‘responsible adult’ and ‘cool older friend.’ Those coaches circle the practice field, warming up their muscles at the start of practice, surrounded by a cluster of kids, telling stories and jokes, leaving one and all with a warm feeling of belonging.

Instead, I struggle with rudimentary give and take:

Hey, what’s up?
Not much, Coach Jeff.
OK, see you later.

Trainings like today’s offer scripts for me to follow. That’s not the purpose, but it’s what I take away; ideas on how I might start conversations with the kids, because really, that’s my most basic coaching need. The point of these trainings is to reinforce positive communication techniques with kids. “First and foremost, use the student-athlete’s name when you talk with them. It makes them feel important.” Great. At the end of last season, I was still struggling with names. Actually, that’s not true, I know all the names, my problem is attaching those names to kids. Those kids all look the same to me.

And on being positive: I’m a glass half empty guy, or completely empty, or smashed on the tile floor. Positive feedback isn’t where my mind goes first. I recognized this thirty years ago. In my career, I took larger and larger leadership positions, an ever growing staff. Then I realized I hated it. It drained me to manage others. Being upbeat and acting friendly requires nonstop effort on my part. It won’t just come out naturally.

Checking out at the grocery: “Thanks for shopping at Kennie’s, have a great evening.

Me: “Thanks.”

Sophie in the parking lot: “No dad, when someone says ‘have a great evening,’ you need to respond with ‘You too!’”

We’ve had this conversation forty times. I just can’t make it happen.  

I’m doing this intentionally, dropping myself into a difficult and unnatural hobby. My friendships all tanked when I quit drinking. Actually, they were already taking on water before I quit, the drinking thing just sent them to the bottom of the sea. Five years later, I need to put myself in situations where I interact with people. It’s easy to grow complacent in a mostly solitary life, and this seems like the best place to start. I like biking. God knows we need the coaches. Plus, I’ve grown much closer to Eli.  

We’re often on the same wavelength, Eli and I. Sometime during my meeting, Eli’s get together with his friend moved to tomorrow. “Hey dad, what do you think of doing a gravel ride at the reservoir this afternoon?”

Well, that worked out well.

Photo taken during a break from barreling down the mountain we just finished climbing.

17 thoughts on “Summit

  1. Good for you! Small talk, and “You too” is over-rated, but you’re trying to improve something you think needs improvement. Even if you’re not surrounded by kids, they know you’re there. You never know when one of them might need a quiet, introspective adult to talk to.

    Is that the same stream with the Rock Of Doom that made you crash? Mountain biking looks fun, but I fall over and get hurt too easily. I blame gravity!😉


    • No, this is a different stream. It’s several miles away. I did check to see if it was the same one though. I’ve always considered small talk to be useless, but it’s a part of our society, and it’s seen as normal, which is a good quality to shoot for when working with other people’s children. But yes, I might have the upper hand when dealing with a kid with the same traits as me.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am not a fan of managing teams either and sadly, it’s the nature of my job. Right now, I have a team of 5 and consistently have stress sweats during the day. I facilitate meetings with 35 people in them 2 x a week. It tests me. Some days, I don’t think I’m gonna make it, but somehow I do. So, keep on keeping on Jeff!! We should always be growing no matter how hard it is. I say that, yet half the time I just want to run away 😂😂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a weakness of mine as well. I mean, I steer clear of conversations as it is, but when it comes to talking to kids I have no idea. I think it is great that you volunteer and push yourself out of your comfort zone. Hopefully things get easier for you.
    Also, this SNL video cracked me up when I saw it – I could totally relate and it applies here. I hope you like it!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Small talk is overrated. But I so feel this on the regular. In the dating years, I’d have a list of conversation topics pre-thought up/memorized in case things got quiet and I ran out of things to say. Now I just sit quiet and wait for someone else to do the conversation work. 😛 Or default to bikes…


    • The topic I always want to go to is writing. I learned long ago that NOBODY cares. Bikes are good for me in a nonwork setting, but talking about a new bike would be inauthentic. I guess I could talk about ways to make my current bike better.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I admire your willingness to take on a responsibility that does not come naturally to you. I usually make an effort to get to know my students’ names, but this semester is tough. I have a lot more students than usual, and with all of them wearing a face mask, it doesn’t make it any easier. I agree that they like to be addressed by name, so I will continue to work on it.

    enjoy the ride with your son; it’s beautiful weather in PA today.


  6. Glad the bike ride with you and Eli worked out. You should feel great that your teenage son wants to spend time with you. Not a lot of dads could say that.

    Not quite sure how to say this, but I think the boys you are coaching probably don’t want more of an exchange with an adult than the one you described. “What’s up?” “Not much.” “OK.” 🙂


  7. Because I was a primary teacher, I have no trouble conversing with kids under 10.! There’s definitely a dead conversational zone for me after age 10 until, actually, about age 60. People older than that I seem to do okay with. I’m not sure what that says about me.
    I’m glad you are coaching again. It’s something Eli will remember.


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