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Athletics: The view from the sidelines with Deb Ryan

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Deb Ryan demonstrates her technique Monday, August 12, which she uses during the Pequot Lakes Patriot football season. She is the spouse of assistant coach Pete Ryan and cheers on her team from a makeshift wooden step on the back of her pickup which is positioned next to the field. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Deb Ryan is not just a coach's wife.

The office manager at Redebaugh Chiropractic in Nisswa, is a mother of three sons, Jake, Luke and Tim, and two daughters, Maddie and Abby. She’s also a mother to a bunch of children's former and current teammates.

Her job gets a little harder this time of year when her husband Pete begins running the defense for the Pequot Lakes Patriots football team.

The two have found a great balance between coaching, family and home life that just might help the next your coaching family stick around for many years.

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Q: Your husband Pete has been a coach on the Pequot Lakes football staff for awhile now. When it gets to be this time of year, can you sense a change in his mood?

DR: Yes, It’s the best time of the year. This morning was pad pick-up and it’s his Christmas morning (and my boys for that matter). Then as the season progresses, he is extremely focused. I seriously don’t see him for the next three months even when he is home. He is at his desk working on plays, watching game film and preparing for the next game. He puts his all into giving the boys the tools they need to succeed. And I take pride in the fact that he is so set on being the best for those boys so that they can be their best. So I don’t mind not seeing much of him during football season because it’s about the team and those boys.

Q: What are some of the difficulties of being a coach's spouse?

DR: None really. I know what’s coming. He leaves earlier in the morning for work so he can be at the school by 2:30 for practice, which being self-employed, he is able to do. Then sometimes he is at practice late working with the players or meeting with the other coaches. And, as I said, I know his evenings are for preparation and planning. I know his schedule is full all week so don’t expect him to be available.

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Q: What are some of the highlights of being the spouse of a coach?

DR: The pride. He did so well with the 2017 team that went to the Bank. One highlight moment was at a home game when a school board member came onto the field after the game to shake Pete’s hand. The first thing he said was, “14 quarters coach. 14 quarters without being scored on.” That was our boys using his defense that did that. He gave them the tools they needed to succeed and boy did they ever. And the fact the kids love him. They enjoy being coached by him. They listen to him. They respect him. Hearing these kinds of compliments also make me proud.

Q: Your sons played football at Pequot. Was it easier for you having their father coach them and be around practice or wouldn’t it have mattered?

DR: It was easier when they were little because I knew he was taking them to practice and the games and I could bring the girls later. As time went on it didn’t matter. He was everyone’s Dad. I believe one of the seniors from the 2017 team gave him the nickname “Pete Dad” and it has stuck. And he was very adamant that his boys wouldn’t get play time just because they were his boys. The other players and parents knew this. They knew my boys earned their spots. So it was nice the parents liked him and respected his decisions as a coach as well.

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Q: How much does football become your families lives in the fall? Does it dominate family discussions during meal time? Is there ever time for family meal time in the fall?

DR: Have you ever heard the saying, “We interrupt this marriage for football season?” Football dominates many conversations. The boys discussed plays, what worked and what didn’t. There were usually extra kids at our house having the same conversations. And this was usually after practice or on weekends, because no, there is not a lot of time for family meals in the fall. And with Maddie playing volleyball most years (she’s off this year after having flat foot reconstructive surgery) that doesn’t leave many nights either. And if we do pull one off, it’s usually 7 or 8 at night.

This year it is more our life. Tim is going off to play football for UW River Falls, and their games are Saturdays. The travel will be longer distances for his games, and with Pequot’s games Fridays, we won’t be able to leave the night before. I’m excited for this fall. Watching the Pequot boys I have watched since they were in 3rd grade, and my son playing a game he loves at the next level is so exciting. The busy will all be worth it.

Q: When your husband said he wanted to coach what were your initial thoughts?

DR: I wouldn’t expect anything different. He has played high school, college and three years semi-pro. He knows the game. He has taught our boys so much about proper tackling technique, probably since before they could walk. He taught them how to read the play and what is coming once the ball is moved. He teaches the boys to look for “tells” from the other team that will tell them if the play is a run or pass. He gives them extra tools to succeed other than just teaching them the play.

Q: Your husband is a business owner so he’s taking time away from his job to be a coach? Do you think people realize just how much effort and time and sacrifice high school coaches give?

DR: Not at all. He basically takes unpaid time off every weekday to be to the school by 2:30 p.m. before practice starts. If there is an away game, that means leaving around 1 p.m. which may mean starting a fireplace installation, but maybe not getting to finish it. And sacrifice is a good word for it. As I said, his evenings after practice is dedicated to preparing for the next game, which I know since my sister is a varsity volleyball coach, many coaches do as well. It means the spouse is taking care of everything else at home - meals, homework with the kids, everything. And if that coach is not a teacher, they are either taking paid time off, or unpaid, just to be there for our athletes. Coaches don’t just coach for the paycheck. They coach because they love the sport. They coach because they want to give kids the tools to work as a group and work with others which will help them succeed in life. At least that’s why the people in my life coach. So they need a little bit more support.

Q: With that being said, how much extra work is there for the spouses of coaches?

DR: It depends on how much involvement there is with the other coaches, wives and team. For us, it just means I get to cook more meals at home (Pete and my boys are better cooks than me) because I will likely be the first home. Pete also would like to have one team dinner the night before a game at our home this year, which usually the parents of the players host. He usually prepares the meal because again, he is the better cook, and I serve. I really enjoy having the boys at our home. They have developed into quite the tight knit family themselves. But the spouses help where needed.

Q: There are a number of coaches for football programs and they usually form tight bonds. Is it the same way with spouses? Do you guys have a support group?

DR: Because we have a newer coaching staff, we haven’t gotten there yet, although I would say we are close. Loni and I talk horses and about the kids a lot. I think as time goes on, because our boys have been or are in the program, we could work toward a “parent’s group” to help the incoming parents understand pregame meals, home game meals, away game snacks and what is expected for all of that.

Q: One of the big reasons I wanted to do this Q&A is it’s becoming harder and harder to find coaches and then to keep them. I could ask every coach in the area about how hard parental pressure is and I would likely get the same answer. But from your perspective as a spouse how difficult is it getting to be a coach?

DR: My sister told me probably 25 years ago, “Let the coaches and the refs do their jobs, and shut up”. When it comes to refs, have you ever seen a ref turn around to the crowd and say, “You know you are right. I think I’ll change my mind”. Never. So why scream and holler. And when it comes to coaches, I really like our PAC 24 hour policy. It gives you time to get home, talk with your player and find out a little bit more information. In the last five years, my sister has instituted a policy that if you want to talk to her about your athlete, the athlete has to be there. That made me think a lot about different issues I have had with my boys’ as players. It made me go to the boys and ask them about the issue. I am not at practice. I don’t know what goes on. I don’t know if they are giving their all or goofing off with their buddies. I know what I want to believe is happening, but I need to talk to them about it because they are there. Nine times out of ten, the boys explained how it was not an issue because I didn’t know the whole story. And I believe that is the case many times. We all believe our kids are the best. They deserve more play time. But have they really earned it? What are they doing at practice, and off the field or court for that matter, to prove they should be playing? One of my boys once complained to me about play time when he was younger. I looked at him and said, “What do you do at practice?” He got mad and I explained I know he knows how to play the game. I have watched him succeed since third grade. But he needs to show the coaches he knows what he is doing and deserves the play time. We need to put the responsibility for earning their spot on them. They need to put in the time and effort. And we as parents need to stay out of the way. Their bosses certainly aren’t going to give them a raise just because mom or dad asked for one for them.

I also coached Maddie’s JO team one season when she was in sixth grade and will never coach again. At that age they are supposed to be learning about play, how to use the skills they have learned and also about winning and losing. Every game and tournament, I would tell the girls if they are not having fun, they probably won’t continue to play, which would mean I have failed as a coach. I also reminded them we were not playing for the Olympics so go out and have fun. I did have instances that killed it for me, such as another coach yelling at one of my players for her call when we were reffing. It brought my player to tears. Another was when a player said to me, “Why do I have to sit? This is JO not Community Ed.” No respect for my choices as a coach. And that is learned from the parents.

Q: Aside from parental pressure, many young coaches also want to start families of their own and watch their children’s activities. How difficult is it to balance family life, work and also be a coach and the spouse of a coach?

DR: Pete did miss some of Maddie’s volleyball in the last couple of years. That has been a discussion point since the boys are no longer playing football for Pequot. It can become very difficult if you are a close knit family. You want to be there for your kids. I have been able to attend Maddie’s games with little sister in tow. Pete has been able to make her home games since they were scheduled right after practice. Next year will be interesting, with Maddie back on the court and depending on which team she makes. We have a little time before we have to worry about Abby’s games. It takes a group effort and complete understanding from your athletes that mom or dad may not be able to make every game. My kids know during football season, dad may not be there for everything because we have had the discussion.

Q: Are there any crazy things you have to do in order to keep the family unit strong during the football season?

DR: We watch a lot of football. And sometimes I watch game film with them. Pete has even taught me “tells” to watch for and sometimes I can pick up on them or other cues before they do. It makes the game very interesting for me to see the plays, how our boys can adapt to them and stop the run or pass.

The craziest thing I think I did was to never yell my boys’ names specifically during the game, unless they made a fantastic play. They didn’t want to be embarrassed because let’s face it, I am that mom. I am loud. I try to sit by myself because I am loud. So I yell for the entire team, for our Patriots. If I yelled specifically at or for our boys, it would not be fun at home.

Q: Your daughters are growing up now. Will your husband keep coaching or maybe coach one of their sports?

DR: Pete has been coaching Abby’s softball team. He has coached all of the kids in the Community Ed program. So until she is in junior high softball, I believe he will continue to coach. I coach her volleyball team. I love teaching the kids the basics of the sport, giving the foundation they can use going forward. I will continue to teach her through Community Ed as well.

Q: Athletics are clearly and important aspect of the Ryan family. Just how important and how have they made you guys a close family?

DR: Being there to support our kids lets them know how important they are to us and that we support what they love. Being there for them when they lost that last game of the 2018 season I knew was important to them. It breaks your heart to see your kids hurt when they have worked so hard to get farther than they did. But to be able to tell them “I am your biggest fan” lets them know they matter and what they do/play matters.

It also gives us a larger family than just us and our five kids. Having my house full of football players or wrestlers for that matter on any given night makes my heart full. And to spend time with those players’ parents and families is amazing. This summer, two of the players (both played football and wrestled) decided to buy a baja car to race the second night at the Crow Wing County Fair. They brought it to our house at midnight Friday night. Pete said, “Get it in the shop”. They spent many hours that night and the next day fixing the roll cage, taking the 5-point seatbelt harness out of Tim’s race truck and putting it in the car and various other fixes before the races Saturday night. Seeing all of the boys and their friends in the pits was awesome. What a great, clean hobby for them all to be involved in. And then to have the parents and families in the pits afterwards was great. We end up doing a lot with the families outside of sports, because they become family as well.

Q: What’s the one bit of advice you would give the spouse of a young coach just starting out?

DR: Understand the time they put into coaching is about the kids. They are doing something great for our youth. They are trying to give them the tools to be responsible adults. Be supportive so they know they can give their all to coaching and not worry about home. I watch the impact Pete has on the boys. I see the success the boys have on the field and know he has helped them achieve that. He gives up time he could be making money with his work. He gives up time that he could be spending at Maddie’s or Abby’s games. He gives up time at home that he could be spending with any of us. He gives up hunting, something he loves to do with his kids. So I need to be supportive so that all of those sacrifices are worth it.

Covering the Brainerd lakes area sports scene for the past 23 years.
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