How Letters From Their Parents Changed This High School Football Team

For high school football coach Masaki Matsumoto, the game comes down to one thing: playing as a team. “If one person doesn’t do his job, the whole play doesn’t work,” 31-year-old Matsumoto, who serves as head football coach at Helen Bernstein High School in Los Angeles, tells Yahoo Shine. “If you are playing for each other, you’re going to play even harder because you are playing for something bigger than yourself — but that comes from the care you have for each other off the field.”

To instill his philosophy in his 90 varsity and junior varsity players, Matsumoto recruited the people who care about them the most: their families. Earlier this year, he asked the parents of his players to write  personal letters to their sons.

The response was impressive: Each of the 90 kids got a letter from a family member. Matsumoto then presented the sealed letters to each player during a team meeting in July. “I told the kids that I had asked their parents to write about how much they loved them and that they should find a quiet spot in the gym by themselves to read the letters,” says Matsumoto, who recalls that some players were brought to tears by what they read. He then asked if anyone wanted to share anything. Though the boys didn't necessarily want to share the specifics of their personal letters, it led to an emotional discussion. “They talked about what they were facing in life,” explains Matsumoto. And they’re facing plenty. A majority of the students at Helen Bernstein High School are from low-income families, and many are being raised in single-parent households.

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Matsumoto’s know-your-teammate coaching approach — which was first featured in the Los Angeles Times on Thursday — has helped the Dragons rack up an impressive 9-1 record this season, an improvement over last year’s record of 8-3, and the team is scheduled to play its first playoff game Friday night at home. “The school is so excited,” Andre Spicer, principal of the school, tells Yahoo Shine. “The feeling of pride the young men [on the football team] have has brought our school closer together and Coach Matsumoto is the catalyst for that.”

Seventeen-year-old running back Julio Quintero was one player whose letter prompted him to share his personal story with his teammates back in July. Julio’s parents were deported three years ago and, since then, his 21-year-old sister Karla has been caring for him and his 11-year-old brother. “She said in her letter that she is very proud of me and my accomplishments,” Julio tells Yahoo, adding that he keeps the letter next to his bed and reads it daily. In addition to strengthening his relationship with his sister, the high school senior says the letter has helped his performance on the field. “She said in the letter that she won’t give up, and that’s what I use in football,” he says. “When I feel like giving up, I don’t.” Julio adds that since the letter exercise, he now knows his teammates better. “Before we didn’t know anything about each other,” he says. “Now my teammates know why you’re willing to play for them.”

According to Shari Young Kuchenbecker, PhD., author of “Raising Winners: A Parents Guide to Helping Kids Succeed on and off the Playing Field,” a child who knows he’s loved is going to take that feeling with him into everyday life and, as a result, perform better. “Every kid needs to know there is someone in the world who is wild about them,” Kuchenbecker tells Yahoo Shine. “The nice thing about what the letter does is it gives the kids something tangible to touch.”

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Matsumoto’s coaching style is inspired in part by his own experience as a young football player being raised by a single mom in Seattle. “I had a great high school coach and a great college coach who were basically my father figures,” he says. The letters are just part of the team bonding that Matsumoto does on a regular basis. Much of the year, Matsumoto leads a weekly team-building or character-development session once a week. Says Matsumoto, “You can’t change a team by changing their physical ability. You change a team by changing the heart of the program and to change the heart of the program you have to change kids' hearts.”

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