High school coaches lead by example. So, what better way to encourage multi-sport participation, which small schools depend on to field athletic teams, than a coach willing to do the same.
One coach in a rural Indiana community is setting that example for his athletes by living and breathing what it means to be a multi-sport coach and why being involved in anything and everything is so important to personal growth.
For more than 20 years, Johnnie Briones has given his heart and soul, sacrificed sleep and time with his family for the student-athletes of South Putnam Middle School/High School in Greencastle, Indiana. His schedule is grueling, but Briones wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I go into work at 11:00 at night and get off at 7:00 in the morning. Go home, go to bed, get up around 2:00 in the afternoon and go to practice or games or whatever. Come home, hang out with my wife, go to work,” Briones said.
Briones, a graduate of South Putnam High School, started coaching when a fellow South Putnam graduate and current South Putnam Guidance Counselor, Brian Gardner, reached out and asked for his help.
“I started coaching seventh-grade basketball and I wanted someone to help that knew the game, but that would be great with the kids. Johnnie was the perfect guy,” Gardner said. “He is very good at relating to kids and yet is very good at holding them to a high standard. He was a guy that I knew would do anything to help the kids and the program. He was that way then and is still that way.”
Briones fell in love with coaching immediately. It didn’t matter the sport or the season. The more students he got the opportunity to work with the better.
“I always said to my athletic director, whatever you need, wherever you need me, I’ll do it. I just love getting to know more kids from different backgrounds,” Briones said.
The athletic director took him up on that offer and quickly made him a three-sport coach.
“The tennis coach quit and I came in for basketball practice one fall and [the athletic director] called me into his office and said, ‘hey, you’re my new tennis coach’,” Briones said.
Volleyball was added to his coaching schedule to fill his empty fall and soon Briones was coaching a sport every season. The sports have shuffled between volleyball, boys and girls basketball, and boys and girls tennis, but Briones’ dedication and excitement for his athletes has never wavered.
“The kids. That’s why I do it. The kids are great,” Briones said.
As a multi-sport coach Briones uses his position to teach his athletes how to handle adversity and find solutions as opposed to perpetuating the problem.
“Life experiences – the little things that happen during practices or matches, dealing with other personalities, not just on the team, but opponents and applying that towards the work place when they get older. How are you going to deal with it?” Briones said.
Gardner agrees that Briones is much more than a coach to his athletes.
“Johnnie has been a shoulder for players to cry on to get life lessons from and a person that kids know will go to bat for them,” Gardner said. “He is the coach that will come cheer other teams on and he’s always around. Being around allows kids to see that he cares so much for them.”
His attendance and support of others in the South Putnam community is another life lesson Briones instills in his athletes.
“We do a pizza and volleyball night with the boys tennis team in the fall and in the spring we do a pizza and softball/baseball night [with the girls tennis team],” Briones said.
Briones not only sees the value in supporting others, but also in displaying appreciation for the efforts of others.
“I have the kids pick a teacher and write why they appreciate them. They invite them to the match and before the match we have a ceremony and the kids share why they appreciate this teacher,” Briones said. “I think that needs to be done more often.”
The South Putnam community and Briones share a deep affinity for one another and their reciprocal support was no more apparent than this past year as Briones underwent heart surgery.
“I have had so much support from them. I have always said that it’s a great place to live and learn and work—so much support,” said Briones. “I get cards and phone calls. They always come out. They are always there.”
As Briones continues to heal physically, he finds comfort in his athletes and the South Putnam community. The experiences he has had as a multi-sport coach have allowed him to build more relationships and learn from so many coaches and student-athletes that he has no plans to stop.
“I can’t imagine not doing this,” said Briones. “You always have those years where you think, I’ve had enough and then there comes a year where it goes really well. I can’t imagine not doing it. My goal is to retire from my full-time job and keep coaching.”
As a three-sport coach in a rural community, Briones’ presence is essential to the diversity of athletic opportunities. In small towns across the country, the survival of the multi-sport coach might be just as important as the survival of the multi-sport athlete.
Lindsey Atkinson is director of sports/communications associate at the National Federation of State High School Associations.