SANDY — If last season didn’t discourage Brad Thomas from coaching his daughter’s accelerated softball team, nothing will.
“Last year we were 0-and-30,” the 44-year-old Sandy man said, the corners of his mouth threatening just a hint of a smile. “That was trying.”
Thankfully, the father of five doesn’t volunteer his time teaching pre-teens to play softball for titles or trophies. He simply enjoys teaching children, especially his, how the lessons on a softball field can help them succeed in life outside of sports.
“I just enjoy being around the kids,” he said. “I hate daddy ball. That’s where the coaches play favorites with their own kids. I’m probably harder on my own kid than I am on others. But I’m just trying to push them to do their best, all of them.”
Thomas may have taken up softball coaching to help his own daughter, but he said he feels a parental responsibility to all of the players who look to him for leadership.
“I’ve had teams that have been winners, and teams that haven’t done so well,” he said, the smile spreading into a grin. “But by the end of the season, the girls are playing their best ball.”
His approach is pretty simple.
“I require three things,” he said. “They’ve got to have fun; they’re going to hustle and they’re going to pay attention.” Thomas, who grew up in Liberty, Mississippi, moved to Utah three years ago with his wife and five children. He played baseball as a child, but football was his passion.
It may have been his junior year that prepared him most for both coaching and life.
“I came from a small school,” he said. “I remember my junior year, we got to one point in the season and we only had 14 healthy guys. You’d look over to the sideline, needing to take a break, and there was nobody there to come in for you. It was so bad, even the coach had broken ribs.”
Still, the team achieved a .500 season and he learned the value of perseverance.
“I would not have missed it,” he said. “It was brutal, those two a days. We knew we were undermanned, but we kept pushing and pushing and pushing. The lesson I learned was to never quit and always have fun.”
He does have one regret, however.
“I wish I had taken it more serious,” he said. “You just keep thinking it’s going to go on forever.”
Thomas married Jennifer Johnson Thomas in 2002 and adopted her two daughters from a previous marriage — Hannah, 20, and DeDee, 19. Then the couple, who lived in Texas until three years ago, welcomed Faith, 13, Jeb, 11, and Bella, 9.
He and his wife, who was a talented and competitive athlete in high school, encouraged their children to play sports from a young age. While they all engaged in athletics with varying levels of commitment, Faith exhibited both talent and a competitive drive.
“We could tell early on that Faith was going to be a good ballplayer,” Thomas said. “Jeb, he’s a good ballplayer too, but he’s so laid back. He can hit the ball a country mile, but Faith, she’s out to beat you.”
He has coached both his son and his daughters.
“Faith fits my style more,” he said. “But (Jeb’s) easier to manage. They both go about things in different ways. But one thing, they give it their all.”
Jennifer said the first year Faith played accelerated softball, the couple coached together.
“It didn’t work,” she said laughing. “I decided to save our marriage, it was best for him to take it from there. He’s willing to put in the time, and I’m not. It’s not just dealing with the kids, it’s the parents and all the administrative stuff. I’m surprised by the amount of time it takes. But he loves the kids.”
Faith admits it can be difficult to have a parent as a coach.
“I’m really stubborn,” she said. “My dad doesn’t let me get away with stuff, he holds me accountable. … But there he also helps me not be too mad at myself.” She said she has a tendency to ruminate on mistakes.
“I care a lot, but he helps me move on,” she said. “You have to focus on the next thing.”
Faith acknowledges the time commitment her father — and that of the other coaches, who are also parents of players — give to the youngsters.
“I think about all the money my parents pay, and all the time my dad has to take off work,” she said. “Sometimes I feel bad, but then I don’t because I’m happy he’s my coach. My dad provides so much for us.”
The fact that her dad can coach her makes her feel special.
“Like he doesn’t coach my sister in swimming,” Faith explained. “She doesn’t get that experience with my dad. … I’m so lucky.”
Brad Thomas said enhancing his relationship with Faith has been one of the most rewarding benefits of volunteering. But he does see some downsides, especially when he misses out on activities with his other children.
“There are times when I think, ‘Am I doing the right thing by coaching them,’” he said. “I don’t know. But I do enjoy being around my kids and the other kids. I like watching the girls developing in the sport, and I like seeing the kids’ progress.”
Jennifer said her husband’s patience and commitment make him the perfect coach for young players just developing both skills and a passion for the game. She’s seen the experience change both her husband and her daughter. “It’s been really good for him and for Faith, especially,” Jennifer said. “I think she trusts him as a coach and can depend on him. He’s honest with her and hard on her, but he also gives her confidence because it’s her dad.”
As Brad Thomas said he and his fellow coaches consider adding another team next year, Jennifer laughs and admits that worries her.
“I do get worried,” she said, explaining that it’s already such a massive time commitment. “But it’s been so good for him. I feel like he’s made friendships, and it’s made him a more confident person. It’s helped him branch out here in Utah, get comfortable, and he has his own social group he can relate to and talk to. It’s almost like, as great as he is at his job, he’s kind of found his calling with softball.”
Faith said having her father coach her softball team has changed their relationship.
“We’ve definitely gotten closer,” she said. “We spend a lot more time together. He’s learned a lot about me, and I’ve learned a lot about him.”
Faith said her dad’s confidence in her and her potential is becoming her own.
“My dad is one of those coaches, he sees potential in a lot of people,” she said. “That’s why I respect my dad. He believes in people. He gives hem a chance. I just hope other people realize how lucky they are to have my dad as a coach.”