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How Camp Counseling Shaped The Way I Coach

There are people and places in our lives that matter the most to us. They have an invaluable spot in our hearts and play key roles in our day to day lives. For some it’s the old college friends they spent countless hours cramming for tests with. For others, it’s the small hometown that never seems to change, with the same old people, restaurants, and local hangouts.

If you asked me where home was, you might expect me to tell you Hendersonville, North Carolina, a growing town just south of Asheville. Or you may expect me to say Boone, North Carolina where Appalachian State is, where I went to college. Home to me, however, is nestled in a small boy’s camp in upstate New York.

Miles away from civilization, a mile from the nearest paved road, and no running water or electricity save for a few administrative buildings, is a camp called Deerfoot Lodge. My family has a long-standing tradition of being both campers and then eventually working there. I myself fit that mold quite well, having spent 13 straight summers as a camper and then eventually on staff. While the vibe at this camp is closer to Boy Scouts than a sports camp, the lessons I learned there have played a significant role in my daily life and in my coaching.

I say that I was a camp counselor there, which is only true for one of the four summers I worked there. In 2012 I served as a camp counselor for 9-12 year old boys who came from all walks of life, where parents dropped them off one Saturday afternoon and picked them up two weeks later. The other three summers I worked there I served in the kitchen, going from dishwasher to Sous Chef. And while many kids will tell you how a camp changed them in some small way, as a counselor and Chef I learned things that would transform the way I carry out my own profession.

Coaching kids and counseling kids are essentially the same thing, just with different end goals. While my role back then was far removed from the confines of a training room, I would not be the coach I am today without those experiences.

When concerning the long-term development of youth athletes, I find myself trying to create ways to expose kids to as many varying athletic scenarios as possible in order to develop the whole athlete. While I see other coaches struggle to come up with fun ways to create this exposure, being a camp counselor trained me well for providing that opportunity to my athletes. If you think coming up with a game that isn’t soccer, baseball, basketball, or football is hard for a group of 10 youth athletes, try creating a game that isn’t one of those for 50+ unruly boys. Experience under these circumstances has lead to a lot of the games that I now use for my current athletes, creating unique opportunities for the kids to explore new game scenarios.

My fellow Sous Chef's and I in 2014

And while I only counseled for a year, my time as a Sous Chef taught me patience under pressure and experience with crowd control. If you think switching a workout on the fly for an athlete is tough, try coming up with a replacement meal for 200 people when after you burn the whole camp’s lunch a half hour before meal time. And if you think communicating expectations to a group of 40 athletes is tough, try communicating dining etiquette and expectations to 180 boys on the first night of camp when 20 of them are crying because they’re already homesick and the other 160 are chanting ‘Ba Ba Black Sheep’ at the top of their lungs just because they can. Controlling 40 athletes after that is a piece of cake.

One of the greatest lessons however, is less about the fun, crowd control, or creativity, but in learning how to connect with young kids. Many would think that connecting with a child isn’t that hard, but when 9 year old Danny gets dropped off for his first overnight stay away from home you have to figure out how to connect with the kid who is going to going to be around you day and night for two weeks. This need for connection taught me how to start off on the right foot, by getting on a kid’s level and making eye contact. How to approach them without making them feel small or intimidated, or getting them to open up by asking the right questions.

An example of getting on a kid's level

These things all come into play when working with youth athletes on daily basis. If you aren’t creative, you end up exposing them to the same things they have already been doing and are adapted to. If you can’t control a room or act under pressure, it doesn’t matter what age your athletes are, you will struggle to help them achieve their goals. And of course, if you cannot connect you will fail to have your athletes buy-in to your program.

I could go on about the other lessons I learned, but they are far more numerous than one blog could do justice to. And as I continue to coach, these lessons continue to come out of the woodwork. Regardless, serving as a Camp Counselor has proved to be one of the most impactful things I’ve done in regards to developing as a coach.

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