Coaches are teachers by trade, applying their know-how to running successful offenses and defenses.
In high school, they’re also in an important position to help teach respect, teamwork and togetherness through sports, all of which can be used once life leaves a field or gymnasium. Sometimes that includes connecting across racial lines, as well.
Given the unrest that has emerged following a video footage of the death of George Floyd during an arrest by Minneapolis police officers leading to protests in all 50 states, the question now becomes, what lessons need to be taught and how do coaches approach complicated subjects that may be uncomfortable?
“The only way we learn is to open up this dialogue between people and learn from one another,” said Amy Tyler, who spent 16 years as the Wagner volleyball coach before becoming an assistant for Mitchell last month. “It’s scary sometimes and it’s difficult sometimes, but the only way we grow is to feel uncomfortable at times. And that’s OK as long as we’re asking the respectful questions for the right reasons.”
For many communities in South Dakota, the current temperament in the nation’s biggest cities may not strike a chord. Only 2.4 percent of the state’s population is African-American and the percentages are less than 1 percent in many rural communities, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
In Howard, where 98.4 percent of the population is white, girls basketball coach Wade Erickson believes it is his responsibility as a coach to help prepare his players -- in a way that is centered around human equality and not personal politics -- for life outside of sports that could come in a more racially diverse area.
“Sports only last so long, and after that, you have to adapt in life,” said Erickson, who led Howard to its first state tournament in 25 years last season. “They’re not all going to stay in Howard, South Dakota, to live and work. They’re going to be out in diverse populations and they need to learn to interact and work with people, not above people.”
Wagner is another community that features less than 1 percent of an African-American population, but it is home to the Yankton Sioux Tribe, which accounted for 30.8 percent of the town’s population, during the last Census. Coming from a predominantly white area of Wyoming, Tyler was met with issues foreign to her life growing up.
Rather than hiding from those issues, she sought advice from the school’s cultural integrationist, which allowed her to not only understand the problems at hand, but to help students, as well.
“I had an athlete that wasn’t able to make it to every practice and one of our players said it wasn’t fair,” said Tyler, who led Wagner to back-to-back state titles in 2008 and 2009. “So I said, ‘Is it fair that you have fair vehicles in your driveway and they don’t have any?’ Open kids’ eyes to some of the trials that some people go through, whether it be race or socioeconomic disadvantages. ... We need to show empathy and compassion and understand that sometimes we just don’t fully understand.”
One of the most important tools kids now have that weren’t available to prior generations is social media. While issues plaguing other areas of the country may not always be applicable to some, videos and photographs are now at the fingertips of kids to bring those issues home.
For Erickson, it is also a key tool for coaches because it allows another glimpse into each other’s lives, while also adding another vehicle for a coach to be a public advocate for a player or student.
“(Social media) is a big platform for coaches to utilize, to show the kids and stand behind what you post,” Erickson said. “It’s getting the word out there as to how important this really is to lead this change and not just stop because in a few days, it’s going to go away. Stay vocal and stay on task until a change is made.”
There may be players compelled to speak out on something they view as unjust, which takes courage and fearlessness, while being articulate and educated enough to appeal to all parties. For Tyler, the first question for any player with a desire to be vocal her first response is, “What is your purpose and what do you want to accomplish?”
“If we never put ourselves out there, nothing is ever going to change,” Tyler said. “If someone like me -- who works with young kids every day -- never voices her concern about things that are going on in the world and never voices empathy and compassion for everyone, then who is going to do it? If you have something you want to accomplish, then get it done and have compassion and empathy and speak respectfully.”