There are only two kinds of coaches in this world: those who cut players and those who don’t. Chas Sumser doesn’t.
Oh, we would all love a dream team. You know, one where you scan down your roster and find every name on it belongs to a star player. Imagine: Jordan, Pippen, Stockton, Malone, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, David Robinson, Charles Barkley, all on your team! Who even needs a coach when you have players like that? (for the record: It was the 1992 US Men’s Olympic Basketball team who was first given the name the Dream Team and coached by Chuck Daly.)
But down here on Earth, we are much more likely to be dealt a hand sprinkled lightly with experience, talent and athleticism and rounded out with personality, enthusiasm and reluctance. This is the hand we’re meant to play throughout the season. This is the reality of “house league” or “rec league” where kids get shuffled and (somewhat) randomly assigned to a coach based on their neighborhood, their playing experience and the number of seasons they have been an all star. We distribute them this way so that games will be competitive and there won’t be any blow outs. Appearances aside, no one really has fun at a blow out. The losers are demoralized and the victors feel bad – if not for their opponents, then for the game they had hoped to have but didn’t get.
The irony is, in a battle of evenly matched teams, it’s the coach’s capability that’s on display. How good is that coach at motivating his players, getting the most out of them, fielding them well, subbing them successfully, cautioning, teaching and comforting them as the situations demand? Those are all marks of a great coach. Everything else being equal, the creative coach wins most of the time.
I was reminded of that this week when I had the privilege of meeting with Chas Sumser, who coached a boys soccer team (Loudon Vipers) from 3rd grade until high school graduation (20 seasons) and after that, a girls soccer team (Leesburg FC Avalanche) from 4th grade through high school graduation last year (17 seasons). Chas played championship youth soccer, dabbled in college ball, but today is a human resources professional. He is a gentle, soft-spoken man who will share story after story with you about his teams, their exploits, hardships, battles and adventures. He only raised his voice once over the course of our entire conversation and that was when I asked him about his roster. “I never cut a player. Ever,” he insisted.
He never cut a player. That’s just part of his DNA. When the league assigned him players, he fielded the best team he could with whomever came his way. As he honored what they brought and grew them up in the game, they meshed pretty well. That earned him invitations to coach the all stars, which allowed other players and families to see how he coached, which enticed players to “request” him as coach. This meant the league had to do some shuffling in order to honor the Chas-requests AND keep the teams even.
This is the power of a good coach. Players want to play for them. Committed to what they have, they build success by making the best of what comes. They play the hand they’re dealt, capably, strategically, lovingly and without looking around. They don’t envy other teams for having “better” players. They don’t look to trade up, pare down or cut their losses. They are committed, completely. They take the boundaries they’ve been given and create the game beautifully within them. That is the definition of ALL IN.
That’s not just a great approach to coaching, it’s a great approach to life, and it begins with “no cutting, ever.” It takes the risk out of performance, out of friendships, out of marriages, out of any kind of relationship. I can trust you because no matter what I do, you’ll stick with me. That opens the door for me to be completely me and to keep getting better at it.
That’s the gift that Chas (and his wife Sally) have given to these kids, and to the families of these kids, over two decades. Even though players have gone off to college, they stay in touch with the Chas and Sally, returning for “alumni” games and for dinners at the Sumser’s house. They text and connect on a Facebook page, where Chas recently received a bunch of happy birthday wishes from former players. One writes, “Thank you being my soccer coach, neighbor, second parent, and friend.”
For his part, Chas posted a picture of a years-old “team birthday moment,” a ritual with the Avalanche. He shows me this photo, pointing to each player to tell me their name and something about them. This photo tells a story, perhaps many stories, because it brings back so many memories.
Oh, these kids weren’t always angels, Chas makes clear. There were times when they were challenging, tough to deal with and had some rough stuff going on at home; mostly growing pains.
But that is nowhere to be seen in the smiling faces and the confident strides on these girls. Chas, who is also a professional photographer, took this photo and captioned it aptly: “Look out world, here come the Avalanche.”
Complete commitment. All heart. No discards. The question is: are we the kind of person who is willing to play that hand?
There are only two kinds of coaches in the world: those who cut players and those who don’t. I know which one I’d want to play for.