Baby, 3, a tiny terrier/poodle mix, strained against his “Service Dog”-imprinted leash in the gym visitors’ gallery, watching the light of his life, Nicole Veit, being taught how to play volleyball by Fran Brett, Special Olympics Pennsylvania coach of the year.
Somehow, in a gym filled with the high-spirited shouts and chatter of 45 Special Olympics athletes at a recent volleyball practice, Brett maintained his trademark low-key patience and his focus on the individual he was coaching.
Brett, who is the head basketball coach and assistant volleyball coach for the Special Olympics programs at the Conshohocken Community Center at the Fellowship House, gently instructed Veit to use both hands and to try to return the serve high over the net, rewarding her intense efforts with a smile and a fist bump.
“He has the patience of Job,” said Veit’s mother, Jane Ware, who rescued Baby from a Media shelter and trained him to cheer up her 36-year-old, intellectually disabled daughter by sensing when Veit is depressed, putting his paw on her arm and licking her face as if it is covered in gravy.
Watching Brett and Veit work together, Ware said, “These coaches are the bomb.”
Brett is one of 30,000 Special Olympics Pennsylvania coaches and volunteers who mentor 20,000 children and adults with intellectual disabilities in 56 county programs offering 21 Olympic-type sports.
Scott Otterbein, manager of Special Olympics Montgomery County, said Brett’s unflappable temperament and one-on-one knowledge of each of his 65 basketball players, many of whom also play volleyball, is why he received the 2017 coach of the year award late last month from Special Olympics Pennsylvania.
Otterbein’s daughter Lauren, 33, who has Down syndrome, has played on Brett’s basketball teams for years with Brett’s son Ryan, 30.
Otterbeing said that both as the parent of a special-needs daughter and as the head coach of the Special Olympics track and field team, where Brett coaches the long jump, he admires Brett’s compassionate patience in stressful and potentially stressful situations.
“Whether their range of functioning is high or low, the athletes can have emotional outbursts,” Otterbein said. “Fran knows how to be really tough sometimes and how to let stuff fly sometimes. If the athletes are shoving and fighting and starting off the wrong way in a practice, I’ve seen him settle that down quickly.
“He has a calming voice,” Otterbein said. “He has a quiet demeanor. That helps calm the athletes down. You don’t hear him yell and shout to get stuff done.
“A good portion of our athletes come from the autism community,” Otterbein said. “With them, loud noises or sudden gestures or grabbing by the hand and saying, ‘Don’t do that!’ — those are things you shouldn’t do. Fran knows when to let people have their tantrums and just keep them safe.”
Hotheaded coaches may know their sports but don’t motivate Special Olympics athletes, Otterbein said. “You can’t be the classic hyper Little League coach who just glares and yells. You’d be frustrated fast. Some of the athletes just stare at you right back and become resistant. If you jump up and down, the athletes love it. They think, ‘Hey, I just pushed this guy’s buttons. Now I know how to drive him crazy.’”
Steve Lesse, who has worked with Brett for 16 years as assistant coach in basketball (and currently as head coach in volleyball), said the athletes aren’t the only ones calmed by his colleague’s rock-steady demeanor.
“I’m as feisty as they come,” Lesse said. “I’m high-strung. I’m over the top.” He said he has mellowed over the years, thanks to Brett. “He’s just so steady,” Lesse said. “Nothing fazes him.”
Their Conshohocken AMBUCS Stars basketball teams, sponsored by the American Business Clubs organization that supports Montgomery County athletes with disabilities, have won back-to-back gold medals at the Olympic-style 2016 and 2017 Summer Games at Pennsylvania State University.
Both coaches seem equally proud that Stephen Fields, 71, was named Special Olympics Pennsylvania’s 2016 athlete of the year.
Fields, who cheerfully introduces himself to people as athlete of the year, was wearing his Nick Foles Eagles jersey and Eagles cap at volleyball practice, and had the biggest smile in the crowded gym.
He worked diligently with Brett on returning serves. Brett said that Fields sees the volleyball as a shadow coming at him, so returning a serve is hard for him. But as the two of them kept practicing, Fields’ resolve never wavered. Neither did his coach’s.
Brett, 60, who lives in Horsham, runs the family’s E. Thomas Brett Business Machines with his two brothers, and still plays basketball in an Upper Moreland adult league, said he enjoyed coaching developmental players in volleyball as much as he enjoyed coaching the A-team basketball players who won the Summer Games gold medals.
“We work and work and work until they get it,” Brett said. “You have to be patient. You have to work with a lot of different behaviors. You have to know the medical history of each athlete.”
Brett has been coaching since 1994, when son Ryan was a 7-year-old player in the Horsham Little League’s Challenger Baseball for children with intellectual and physical disabilities. In 1998, when Ryan was 11, Brett began coaching his Special Olympics basketball teams. A few years later, when the volleyball coach died, father and son added another sport to their time together.
“I have been coaching here for 19 years, and a lot of my athletes have been here for 19 years,” he said. “Some are laid-back. Some are aggressive. Some need a pat on the back. Others want you to yell at them because it gets them going.”
All of the athletes, he said, are a pleasure to coach. “When I leave work and I go to basketball practice, they’re waiting for me at the door with big smiles on their faces,” Brett said. “They’re so happy. And I forget about work.”