Geoff Carlston, who grew up in Minnesota, has coached on the college level for 20 years. He has been the head coach at Concordia University-St. Paul, Ohio University, and, from 2008-19, The Ohio State University.
He and his wife, Sara, now live with their three young boys in Colorado, where Geoff is coaching beach volleyball players of all ages, including a rising AVP men’s team.
This article grew through his AVCA presentations on storytelling, conversations with coaches, and his own experiences:
By Geoff Carlston for VolleyballMag.com
There is no other vocation quite like coaching.
We give of ourselves, heart and spirit, because we genuinely want to make a difference. Coaches epitomize what cultivates meaning in this crazy world we walk in. We trust, we aspire, we inspire, we teach, we love.
The coach’s path is not for everyone. The road is filled with moments that can relentlessly drop us to our knees.
We lose on the court, exposed in front of multitudes of all-knowing fans in the bleachers and screens. They will never understand a coach’s drive home, ruminating at each stoplight about a game-altering play we wish we could have back. We shepherd the dreams of our players and staff, taking on their pain, stories, injuries and doubts. A coach is wired for strong shoulders.
On the other side of the adventure, this journey affords us joys most could not even imagine experiencing in their work. A coach understands that you cannot have one without the other. They are intertwined and symbiotic.
Yet as competitive as every coach I know is, they are in the arena because they believe, to their core, in the magic of teachable moments. These slices of time are too often missed, lost in the fog of the day’s chatter and noise. Great coaches capture and breathe life into them. They build the stage for stories to be written and understand that the best verses are born from these moments. So we are there when our players feel joy, when they are in a lonely hospital bed, when their spirit is broken and when they fly.
We are there to grieve when a parent dies. We are there to listen when they are at their weakest, and we are there to let go when they begin to realize the strength of personal courage. We are there. An impactful coach shows up, stays in the muck with them every single day.
I am reminded of legendary coach Mike Hebert’s heartfelt words to me, that being a coach will oftentimes be a very lonely experience. Perhaps this is because we so rarely show ourselves grace amidst our own struggles.
Grace can be defined as “kind, courteous goodwill towards another,” or, in more spiritual terms, “mercy and loving compassion.”
In coaching, grace grants us permission to be human, to be genuine and present. It allows us to lean into our story’s sharp edges and, more importantly, share those chapters with others. It releases us to be authentically imperfect. Grace is the bridge that allows us to walk away from fear and towards love.
I had coached from a place of fear longer than I would like to admit, more acutely in the last three years when we missed the NCAA tournament. As a head coach, I felt the full weight of that responsibility. There were no excuses, all of it took place on my watch. I gave myself very little grace in those times.
For me, it took being fired before I allowed myself to experience it fully.
As I walked out the doors of The Ohio State University, let go for the first time in my life, I felt a strange and unexpected feeling right there in the middle of the parking lot. I was exposed, off-balance, sad. I was angry, embarrassed, afraid. And then, without effort or searching, it found me, subtly quieting those emotions even before I reached my car. I would not call it a feeling of peace or a “things happen for a reason” sentiment. It was a raw, flowing letting go. It was grace.
If we can step back and truly see what is right in front of us, the pandemic has provided us all a similar opportunity to release the tight grip we have foolishly perceived as control.
It has cleared the way for grace.
COVID has given us a gift that beckons us to not only curiously peek into the ambiguous future of our profession, but also reflect on our own story. We no longer have the luxury of planning for next month without acknowledging that things could change tomorrow. The impermanence of life is in our face, unlike it ever was in the time before COVID. Yet these days are fertile ground, giving us the space to yank out the weeds, plow them under the earth so that something amazing can bloom in our coming spring, whenever that may be. Wisdom is the peaceful acceptance that all we have is today. Grace calls on us to stay in that knowledge, to walk side by side in it with our families, staff, friends, and players along this unknown path.
I have been fortunate to connect with coaches, administrators, and student-athletes over the past months to hear their stories. There is a palpable, understandable sense of anxiety and worry. Planning for something that may not ever be realized is a challenging landscape to feel secure in. Through these conversations, I wondered once again about teachable moments.
What if, in harmony with our seasons, we were preparing the young people on our teams to learn the invaluable lesson of resiliency?
Can we shift our paradigms to look at the uncertainty of tomorrow as a quiet messenger reminding us all to cherish today?
What if all the quarantining and isolation were looked to as signposts for us all to shore up and appreciate our friendships, our families and each other?
Five years from now, can these days become our greatest legacy?
As coaches, we are supposed to have the answers, yet the pandemic has posed many unanswerable questions. Grace provides us all the blueprint to begin inquiring through a deeper, more courageous lens.
There is no denying that these are incredibly challenging days we are navigating. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t had many soul-searching moments along the way. However, if we are going to speak to these times as “unprecedented,” then we have the opportunity to act and respond in kind.
We can model bravery to our children, our athletes, our staff and the world.
We can choose to be vulnerable and admit that we too feel all the unspoken emotions anchored to being alive in this moment of history.
And in that honesty, we may liberate others to begin writing their own story, one in which they are the heroines and heroes on an amazingly epic journey. In other words, with grace, we can coach.