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   Coaches who universally enforce their team rules may be hurting the team in the process.    My sister’s orthodontist appointment took a lot...

   Coaches who universally enforce their team rules may be hurting the team in the process.

   My sister’s orthodontist appointment took a lot longer than expected, so my mom was late — and then she had a flat tire. By the time I got to practice, there were only 20 minutes left, and my coach said that I couldn’t play in the game the next day because his rule is if you miss practice the day before a game, you can’t play. But it wasn’t my fault – does that seem fair?

R. G., Lodi

   It isn’t fair – and not only that, it isn’t smart.

   What your coach is doing is penalizing not only you, but the team, the athletic department, the school and whatever community following your team might have for something that was completely out of anyone’s control. Sure, it’s important to be at practices, but the world does not revolve around basketball, and sometimes things happen.

   But that’s the problem with rules: sometimes things happen, and you still have to enforce them. If you put in a rule that for every minute a player is late, the entire team has to run one liner, then if a girl’s car breaks down a mile from school and she winds up being 15 minutes late, everyone runs 15 liners. Yes, that discourages people from being late, but what if that’s the day before a big game? Now you have an entire team with dead legs, and it was no one’s fault — except the coach’s, for having made a dumb rule he now must enforce.

   John Madden, one of the great coaches of his day, had three rules: 1) Be on time; 2) Pay attention; 3) Play like hell.

   And he also didn’t specify any particular penalty. Like John Wooden, another pretty decent coach, Madden treated his players fairly, but not equally. For example, if a senior has been dedicated for four years, misses practice only when he’s got a fever of 103, and has always been a team leader, and then comes late to practice, a good coach will let that slide. On the other hand, if a player who’s continually late, misses offseason workouts and has never been dedicated enough to be a leader and then misses practice, then the coach is perfectly justified in laying down a serious, and appropriate, punishment.

   One punishment that likely isn’t appropriate is sitting a player for a game. That doesn’t just penalize the player, it penalizes the whole team (and the athletic department and the school and the community), so it makes sense to deliver a punishment that focuses on the individual rather than a punishment that impacts the group.

   Some coaches will come up with several possible punishments, and let the captains and/or the team decide, or some coaches will just have the player involved first apologize to the team, and then have the other players figure out the right consequence.

   Regardless, hard and fast rules almost always come back to bite a coach and a team. Instead, go back to John Wooden, and treat people fairly, but not equally. The dedicated athlete doesn’t necessarily deserve the same punishment as the habitual slacker — and the team doesn’t deserve to be punished for an individual’s issue, no matter whose fault it is.

Clay Kallam is an assistant athletic director and girls varsity basketball coach at Bentley High in Lafayette. To submit a question for Behind the Clipboard, email him at

   Read more by Clay Kallam… Overcoming the Elements 

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