Not long ago, I was standing in a restaurant lobby when a gentleman approached me and asked, "You're Doug, aren't you?" I said yes, and he asked whether I remembered him. "I probably do," I said, "but I don't recognize you. You'll have to help me."
I suspected that he was one of my former youth hockey players, but I didn't know which one. Years after a team's last game, inability to recognize a player's face the next time comes with the youth coach's territory.
No wonder I didn't recognize the gentleman. I coached him in the early 1990s, when he was 16. Now he is 42, married with children of his own.
After some storytelling, he knew that I indeed remember him. But equally gratifying was that he remembered me.
Reunions like this demonstrate one reason why youth league and high school coaches should think twice before letting short-term frustrations lead them to depart of their own accord while they still have more to offer.
Coaching sometimes brings short-term frustrations that stem from challenges largely unknown years ago. These challenges lead many youth coaches to serve only while their own sons or daughters participate, and they lead many high school coaches to hang up their whistles before their time. Particularly at the high school level, men and women with coaching tenures spanning decades rather than months or years seem a disappearing breed.
Whether to leave youth coaching is, of course, an individual decision for coaches and their families. But when a coach is considering whether to leave seeks my advice, I suggest considering not only the short-term highs and lows, but also the long-term rewards that continued service might hold.
One of the great long-term rewards - and this column's subject - is that players don't forget their devoted youth coaches. If a coach treats the team right, coach and players frequently maintain lifelong friendships based on shared experiences and mutual respect.
I still keep in contact with many of my former players, though others (such as the player I met in the restaurant lobby) move on. I still get a charge whenever someone approaches in the grocery store (or a restaurant) with, "Hey Doug, remember me? You coached me 25 years ago."
Pleasing To Remember
Behind only the parent-child and child-sibling bonds, the teacher-student bond can be one of life's most lasting. Coaches are teachers in every sense of the word, and players are their students.
For a volunteer or compensated coach with more to offer, perseverance today can establish relationships that endure long after the coach blows the whistle for the last time. Chalk up these relationships as deferred compensation for a job well done, a valuable reward not measurable in dollars.
But fair warning ... Be prepared for failure to recognize a former player after a decade or more. Non-recognition happens all the time. Players may not initially understand because they see their faces in the mirror every morning. But they do understand once the coach stresses that only their faces, and not the memories and recollections, have changed.
Frozen In Time
When recognition fails me, I sometimes paraphrase remarks delivered by the beloved school master in the 1939 movie, "Goodbye Mr. Chips." At his retirement dinner after more than 40 years teaching Latin at a British boys boarding school, Mr. Chips (Robert Donat in his Academy Award-winning title role) alerted the student body to the moments of non-recognition that awaited:
"If you come to see me in the years to come - as I hope you will - you may see me hesitate and you'll say to yourself, 'Oh, the old boy doesn't remember me.' But I do remember you - as you are now." Images frozen in time.
Schoolmaster Chips closed his on-screen retirement valedictory in Latin: "Haec olim meminisse juvabit."
The line is from Virgil's "Aeneid," and the English translation reminds us that nostalgia remains a long-term reward of teaching, or coaching:
"In the future, it will be pleasant to remember these things."
Doug Abrams, a University of Missouri law professor and a youth hockey coach for 45 years, is the 2013 recipient of USA Hockey's Excellence in Safety Award.