Youth coaches wise with experience

Like moms, hot dogs and apple pie, the sports coach is something sacred in America.

We hand our children’s hearts over to them and trust they’ll guide the young crew across an angry sea of in-house baseball schedules or traveling team hockey tournaments. We follow the coach’s lead a whole season long, all the way to the promised land of sports glory and state championships (or at least to a party at Jake’s Stadium Pizza at the end of the season where players and parents can share pizzas and Cokes).

It takes a brave individual to step up and agree to be a coach. Because the fact of the matter is, most parents choose not to. They either don’t have the time, don’t know the game or just don’t have any interest in doing it. Which makes it that much more important to recognize — and applaud — the ones who do.

Whether it’s sports, scouts or the arts, we need people to step up and guide our kids. Here are three who do it well.

Put me in, coach

Rudy Kleist grabs a black catcher’s mitt off the floor and heads confidently into a gaggle of 10-year-olds — kids with unsure arms, questionable catching skills, heads on a swivel, bouncing off the walls with energy.

Pulling a ten-gallon bucket full of Rawlings baseballs close, he drops to one knee and holds a ball up, pausing to make sure the boy on the end of the row can see and understand that it’s comin’ at him. With the gentle assuredness of a man who has done this literally thousands of times, Kleist deftly tosses the ball, from 15 feet away, directly into the pocket of the kid’s mitt. Thunk!

The kid smiles, and Kleist pulls another ball from that bucket. 

“All right, bud,” he says to the next kid, “you’re next!”

It’s the first night of the winter season at the Mankato Area Baseball Association’s warehouse facility. Kleist is the guy in charge around here. This is the place where countless youth baseball players come for several months to get ready for the beginning of the season. They hone pitching skills, take hundreds of cuts in the batting cage and just generally get in fighting shape for tryouts.

And if your son ever used the MAYBA warehouse in the past 15 years, there’s a good chance they’ve interacted with Kleist. He may have pitched to him, tossed him a grounder on the warehouse’s green indoor carpet, or just tossed the ball back and forth. Kleist is currently the warehouse manager as well as MAYBA’s equipment manager, and you’ll find him there many nights this month doing something to help some kid become a better ballplayer.

Kleist has been a coach for many years. He began coaching way back in the late 1980s, and it all started because of an injury sustained in a wrestling match. He was still in high school, a senior, when he tore his medial collateral ligament. That meant he couldn’t play baseball during his senior year … but he wasn’t out of baseball entirely.

There was a coaching vacancy for a youth team in Eagle Lake. They offered it to Kleist. He accepted. Since then, other than a few stints when he was busy being a dad to newborns, he’s never been far from a ballfield helping youngsters.

Like many coaches, Kleist raised his hand when his son Mitchell’s T-ball team needed a coach. That began a long stint of Kleist coaching whatever teams his sons were on. In some cases he was chasing two teams around, Mitchell on one team and his little brother, Ben, on another.

“As soon as Ben was old enough to play, I’d be running back and forth,” Kleist said. 

So it’s fair to say Kleist has logged hundreds of hours — probably thousands — in a dugout directing the strategy, on the mound throwing batting practice, and driving back and forth and back and forth and back and forth between ballfields, tournaments, practices and everything else related to baseball.

And he doesn’t regret a minute of it.

“For me,” he said, pausing a bit, “I just love baseball. There’s nothing better than being outside on a warm spring or summer day with the sun shining and green grass. And each season is kind of a challenge and adventure. I look at it more as maybe an intense hobby. It’s fun to be around the players, the young guys, keeping in touch with them, watching them grow and evolve, watching them improve; that still keeps me going.”

Not-so-tiny dancer

At the height of his professional dance career, Riley Weber had it all taken away from him.

The 6-foot-4-inch dancer was one of the best, dancing professionally before he even entered college.

But it’s murder on the lower back of a tall dancer to be paired up with the characteristically short women of the Midwest. All those lifts took a toll. The pain grew worse, until finally …

“I couldn’t pick up my dog without going down to my knees,” Weber said.

So, after trying every other possible approach to heal his back, he opted for back surgery. Going in, he knew the surgery might end his dance career.

“They said ‘Once you have surgery, you’ll have limited flexibility in your back,’” he said.

And they were right. For Weber, a career expressing himself through dance and wowing thousands of performance-goers was over.

But another career was just starting.

“I’ve been teaching ballet for about nine years now.”

Weber splits his time between Mankato Ballet Co., and the Larkin Dance Studio in the Twin Cities (one of the top dance schools in the nation).

Weber grew up in North Dakota and attended the University of Minnesota where he majored in dance. He started working with Mankato Ballet Co. shortly after his back surgery. The gig with Larkin came along later. Between the two, Weber has cobbled together a career that may not be what he envisioned in his teens or early 20s, but one that’s been just as rewarding, he said, in its own way.

“For me, not being able to dance, makes we want my kids to succeed even more.”

Weber said his style is no-nonsense. He’s tough on the almost exclusively all-girl student body because the Mankato Ballet Co. is committed to pushing their students to get better and, if possible, progress to professional dance companies or collegiate programs.

“I’m known for being a hard and direct teacher, and that doesn’t always work with kids. They know they’re gonna get what they’re gonna get from me. They know it’ll be harder hearing it from a teacher in New York than a teacher in Mankato, Minnesota. I’m never gonna coddle anyone. I’ll flat out say to them go to a different studio, go somewhere where they’ll baby you. And sometimes you have to let kids go, have them move on to another place, and I do that in the best interest of the kids. I care about them all. If you want a teacher that’s going to tell you how good you are, you’re not going to get that from me.”

His methods sound harsh, but Weber said dancers routinely return to him for guidance or for a sympathetic ear.

“I have people come back after they’ve left and they just want to have coffee and cry,” he said. “People will go to big ballet school and they just want to come back and be around this community we’ve created. And at the end of the day I want to produce good people. To do that, you have to be their cheerleader, but you also have to be demanding.”

Weber said one thing he’s learned in his decade of coaching and teaching is that kids can’t do everything. He’s seen a lot of cases where parents push their children to do every activity imaginable, to the point where the child’s engagement level with those activities is a mile wide and an inch deep. He says he understands parents’ desire to give their kids a breadth of experiences, but at some point, he said, they must choose what their heart truly wants and then commit.

“I see it every year from one or two students; parents push them to do everything,” he said. “Parents are trying to set them up for success but doing it the wrong way.”

Hoopin’ it up

As a financial planner, Brian Corbett is good with numbers. So you can believe him when he says he’s run the numbers on how many games he’s coached over how many years.

“I’ve added it and it’s at least 350 games,” he said. “At least. Over 17 years. And unfortunately, the first three years, we were not good, and that was more due to my learning curve.”

For Corbett, it’s been mostly basketball.

“I did T-ball, and then maybe a year of soccer,” he said of his coaching career. “And I tried football once, but some of the other coaches told me that I was … not the head coach. Which I agreed with.”

Unlike a lot of coaches, Corbett stepped up to coach without having a kid on the team. It was the mid to late ‘90s, and he and his wife, Julia, had just moved to town. Corbett was looking for something to do in his spare time. Julia was on the youth basketball association board and mentioned to other board members her husband might be interested in coaching. That led to his coaching debut with B-squad group of fifth graders. He followed and coached that group for several years, until they entered high school.

When his sons grew old enough to join youth basketball teams, Corbett coached their teams as well. Each of his sons — Brennan, Griffin and Aidan — has had dad for a coach. Being a coach of your son’s basketball team has a giant plus side: You’re on the court and providing the kind of mentoring only a father can give, and it’s all in the warm blanket of “quality time” between parent and child. At the same time ...

“It’s a good/bad sometimes on that stuff,” he said, not referring to any particular son. “We’ll give each other the dirty looks walking in and out of the gym and I’m like, ‘Why aren’t you doing what you’re supposed to be doing?’ and he’s like, ‘Why don’t you shut up and leave me alone?’”

Corbett now lives in the best of both worlds. He’s a volunteer coach and gets to be there while Aidan practices (his two older sons are in college). But come game time, he’s in the stands, watching alongside the other parents.

And as a parent, he’s had experience recognizing and then tailoring instruction and methods to the way individual kids learns. Any parent with multiple kids can tell you that what works to motivate the first won’t necessarily work to motivate the second or third. Having a mental toolbox full of different ways to teach a kid to be a better player or harder worker is helpful, which is something Corbett said he brings to the team’s coaching mix.

“You can’t have it be the same for every kid because they all respond to things differently,” he said. “And I was kind of joking about my sons, you know, but sometimes we butt heads on this stuff a little bit.”

The current season, he said, has been one of his favorites because, while Corbett spends much of his coaching time on defensive positioning, the finer points of rebounding and post moves, Aidan is across the court working with other coaches who specialize in skills for guards. So he and his son aren’t spending as much time together at practice as you might think.

“I think we both would agree we’ve had one of the more enjoyable experiences this year,” he said.

Corbett said he’s improved as a coach over the years.

“For sure, that first group I coached, compared to now, I’m way better (as a coach),” he said. “I know what works, I know what doesn’t work, I know what’s kind of a waste of time.”

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