Parenting is all about balance.
Coaching is much the same.
Doing both at the same time? That’s a tightrope to walk.
Yet, coaches from both The Villages High School and Wildwood Middle High School cross country teams strike that balance — or at least aspire to.
J.P. Probola is in his second year at the helm of the Buffalo and three of his own children — Katherine, Lillian and David— run for the team. Robby Strickland, meanwhile, coaches his two oldest sons — Jessie and Emory —at Wildwood.
“I think it comes naturally but it’s definitely a challenge at times,” J.P. said of coaching his offspring. “I’ve coached them in soccer, I coached David in baseball and it’s tough to describe but there’s always that personal side of things that happen at practice that’s hard to deal with, like things going on at home or asking me what’s for dinner 10 times while I’m trying to get a point across to another group of kids.”
That balance can be challenging for the runners as well, fulfilling the expectations of someone giving the demands as both a parent and a coach.
“I think he pushes me a little harder than some of the other kids,” Jessie said of his father. “He holds me to a higher expectation. I think any dad has a high expectation, though.”
It’s an obvious space where the lines become blurred between parenting and coaching.
“I definitely treat my kids a little bit differently because I have a hard time pushing other people’s kids as much as I would like to,” J.P. said, “but I have no problem pushing my kids.”
That’s not always a bad thing, though.
“I’m expected to do better but, honestly, it’s really fun,” Katherine said. “I’m doing a lot harder workouts this year than I’ve been doing in past years, but it’s paying off and I’m seeing that in my times in the meets, so I’m happy. I’m willing to work hard if it’s going to pay off.”
Katherine, now a sophomore, was the first in her family to join cross country, spurring J.P. to sign on as assistant coach to his predecessor at VHS, Martin Prisby. The younger Probolas followed shortly behind.
“I started running because my sister was running and my dad was the assistant coach,” said Lillian, a freshman, “so I decided to run and then David decided to run also.”
J.P. tries to keep running talk somewhat limited at home. While Katherine said she appreciates being able to talk to him at any time about the team’s workouts or what she has to do to improve her times, he tries not to wear the kids out with too much coaching away from the field.
“If we were at a contest, I kind of let it sit for a little bit and I wait for them to come to me and ask me questions about it because I don’t want to hammer them with too many questions,” J.P. said. “Generally, I’ll let it marinate for a couple hours and then we’ll revisit whatever happened.”
However, in the Strickland family - between Robby, Jessie and Emory as well as Robby’s parents, who also live in Wildwood - there are no such limitations.
“My mom fusses us all the time because that’s all we talk about is sports,” said Robby, the Wildwood assistant coach. “We do talk about other sports - basketball and football and everything else - but it’s not a switch we turn off. We keep it going pretty good.”
That passion runs deep, stemming from Robby’s own father, Derrel, who ran cross country and track in high school. Derrel coached Robby and his younger brother, who was a state champion in the 400-meter dash, when they were student-athletes at Wildwood and is still involved with the teams as a volunteer assistant.
“It’s been awesome. I’ve been helping track down here since Robby and Casey were running and a little bit before that,” Derrel said, “so about 30 years. It’s great to see my grandkids involved in it.”
In fact, Derrel is the reason Jessie, now a senior, and in turn, Emory, a freshman, first fell in love with running.
“I began running track when we did the mile in P.E. and I asked my granddad what his fastest time was,” Jessie said. “I tried to beat that and I wasn’t anywhere close. After that, I kept with it and my sixth-grade year I ran the mile and it went pretty well.”
Emory joined track and field in an attempt to out-do his twin sister, Emma, in the javelin throw, and eventually took up distance running after seeing Jessie succeed in the sport.
“Jessie was pretty good at it, so I realized I could be pretty good at it too and I wanted to get into competitive track and field,” Emory said.
Jessie is now in his final year at WMHS and is hoping to see the Wildcats make a push for the Class 1A State meet. Robby, while hoping to help him achieve that goal, is also trying to savor the intervening months.
“With him, I knew our time together on the track, it’s going to come to an end eventually, and some of my favorite moments have been when it’s just Jessie and I out on the track,” Robby said. “He’s trained year-round and, for many years, he was the only one out here, so we’d be out here in winter and summer and rain and, everything else with just him and I and those were some of our best times together. I’m going to miss it a whole bunch.”
Probola, whose kids are a few years behind Jessie, already feels those grains of sand falling faster and appreciates the extra time and engagement he gets with his children through coaching.
“I really like being involved with them and knowing their friends and seeing how they interact with other kids,” he said.
“Just enjoy the time that you have with your kids because it goes by quickly.”
Both teams will compete Saturday morning at the Buffalo Invitational at The Villages Polo Club.
Staff Writer Drew Chaltry can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5233 or at email@example.com.