July 10, 2018

The Phone Call

By Jeff Eckerle

Jeff Eckerle

Head coach

Currently, Jeff is the Eagan 12AAA head coach. Jeff has coached many baseball and girls basketball teams over the last five years. Professionally he has twenty years of experience leading software and technology related teams. He currently is the co-founder of CaptureLife, a Twin Cities-based software company.

I was sitting in an early afternoon meeting about a month ago. My phone started vibrating in my pocket. I ignored it, which is pretty typical when I’m in a meeting. Then another call right away, and a third right after that. Growing a little concerned, I looked at my phone to see who it was. It was a former teammate who I played baseball with growing up. He was a pitcher, and I was a catcher. We shared a lot of fun memories over the years, including a few seasons of college baseball. I hadn’t seen him in two years, but I knew he had recently gone through a tough divorce.

I answered the phone.

On the other end was a voice laced with fear saying three short words:

“I Need You.”

While still processing the concern I felt, I said, “How can I help?” In the next 30 seconds, I learned he was recently released from the hospital after a suicide attempt, had been living out of his car for the last three days and was on an intense regimen of meds for a host of health issues.

He didn’t know what to do.

He ended with the same three words.

“I Need You.”

I left my office mid-meeting and hopped on a train that would take me to where I told him to meet me. That gave me 15 minutes to call the suicide prevention line for a crash course on how to help someone who might be ready to harm himself. I spent the next six hours with him doing a lot of listening and rehashing some old memories. The medication clearly had an effect on him. Everything to him was foggy, and physically he was a shell of the teammate I remember playing with. I got him back into a hospital. While he’s not out of the woods yet, he’s on a much better path.

Why I answered?
As I reflect back on this, it has helped me refocus on what is most important as the coach of my 12-year-old boys’ baseball team. This teammate and I didn’t grow up as best friends. Outside of baseball, we didn’t do too much together. We were around each other a lot over the years, and we stayed in contact, but it had been over two years since I’d seen him before that call. In fact, I didn’t even know he had moved back to my area. Yet, when I heard his voice, I dropped everything and went into action.

Why?

The strength of bonds that form between teammates working towards a common goal in a competitive sports environment is meaningful.

How I try to apply this to coaching
The most important thing that I can do as a youth coach is to teach my players how to be great teammates. Going through the ups and downs of a season together builds trust and an underlying connection to others on the team, even between those who might not be friends outside the team.  As a child, you have no idea this is happening.  But as a coach, I do everything I can to make sure that it does. We’ve taken some extra steps this season to focus on relationship building. We’ve purposely put the players in some non-baseball situations that are a little out of their comfort zone in hopes of building trust.
Here are some examples:
-At the end of each game, every player gets a compliment from another player in front of the whole team about something positive they did.
-A few weeks ago, the team volunteered together at a VA home, playing games with residents.
-Throughout the season a mom has led them through periodic intense yoga sessions. And, we even had another mom host a book club discussion night where the boys came prepared after reading a book about teamwork.
Have we had challenges this year at times, and some examples of not being good teammates? Sure, but we turn those into great teaching moments.  Let’s face it, 12-year-olds rarely retain anything until the fifth or sixth time, right?

It applies to business teams too
I co-founded a software company three years ago, and my takeaway is that, just like youth sports, nothing is more important than building strong bonds between people on the team. The team is different–employees, advisors, investors, customers, etc.–but there are still ups and downs that are very similar to the sports season.

Being a founder of a start-up is very similar to a coach starting a new season. You get a clean slate to set the culture of what the business will become. The same holds true when stepping into a leadership position within an established business. Nothing is more important to me than creating the right environment. One where trust and underlying connections form within the team, especially between those who probably won’t interact outside of the team.

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