Catalytic Corner Interview

Featuring: Ryan McFarland

 Equipping Kids with Skills That Will Last a Lifetime

Ryan, describe your journey so far; how you got to where you are today?

I’m very grateful to be where I am today in my life. It’s funny how everything eventually works out. My college basketball career did not really go as planned!  I played two years of junior college ball but didn’t get the major college offer I was hoping for.  So, I made the decision to focus on school and graduated with a degree in Sports Management.

During that time, I also coached a middle school basketball team that performed very well. Based on that success and my athletic contacts, my old high school coach asked me to join his staff.  I learned a ton from him during that time and loved the experience of working with young athletes.

Coaching was my passion!

That was interrupted when my wife and I moved to Baltimore. My network there was quite small, and I took a full-time job to support our family income (non-coaching); I wondered if basketball may just be something that I enjoyed on the side. However, I signed up to be a part of a men’s basketball league and I saw this 6’4” guy with long red hair. It was Ben Cecchini, who is my now business partner! We really clicked and now we own Give N’Grow Basketball together.  We’ve been working together for three years and have been a non-profit for the past year!


Tell us about Give N’Grow Basketball.

We focus on mindfulness and emotion management skills through our basketball curriculum.  Based on research by child psychologists, child educators, and youth coaches, Ben and I developed the most effective learning and coaching practices as the foundation of our program.

There are six different emotional skills addressed in a six-week program format: we tackle one skill each week.  In our highly participative clinics, we feature six different “stations” that focus on each of the six skills. We basically teach them about mental health via the basketball court… a setting in which they are highly engaged and are ready to interact and learn.


In a few words, how do you describe the goals of your work?

That’s a really good question. If you asked Ben, he would say that we are here to build excitement around holistic health and mental health awareness. We are coaching fundamental basketball skills as well as fundamental mental and emotional skills. We are informal and relaxed with the players. I go by Coach Mac, but in my opinion, we are first and foremost, teachers! Our goal at the end of the day is to equip them with skills and tools that will last a lifetime.


Who were some of the major influences, or teachers, in your life?

Number one is my late father. His approach was quite militant and really tough, but still encouraging. From a toughness and a resilience standpoint, he’s definitely the person who influenced me the most. He coached me and bunch of other inner-city kids over several years. I was fortunate to have a father who was present in my life all the time and my teammates were fortunate enough to have him as a father figure in their lives.

The second person I think of was my high school basketball coach, Tony Ballister. He was the fundamental “this is how we play basketball” guy. I still text him quite often after I find myself teaching young players some of the things that I learned from him. He loves the feedback loop! So, I think of my dad for my toughness and resilience, and I think of Coach Ballister for my fundamental skills and fostering my itch to teach.


You speak with such love and fondness about your father, what made him so influential to so many?

He served in the army for a while but then he was also a factory worker. He was very much so a blue-collar, bring your lunch pail type. In addition to that in his earlier years, he was a musician, a music producer, and deejay. But when he had my brother and I, he realized that being out all night and pursuing music wasn’t so much a reality anymore! I believe he got into coaching to fill his life with a different passion and hobby, in a way that enabled him to be close to us.

What else shaped who you are now?

My upbringing was very unique. I was stuck in the middle between the “haves and the have nots.” Both of my parents went to Reading High which has 5,000+ kids in the school: it was typical that only about half of the incoming freshmen graduate. Because of that my parents busted their tails to be able to send us to private school. I would get on the bus in Reading and go out to the county where the parking lots were full of BMW’s and Audi’s. At the end of the day, I’d get back on the bus and go back home to the city. My life-long friendships are all over the spectrum.

My biggest inspiration for teaching inner city youth was the best player I’ve ever been on the court with…his name was Jamar L. The harsh reality of people like him, is that he was born without a chance. The conditions that he was born into I couldn’t even imagine. He didn’t have those same opportunities that I had. I was listening to a podcast and they said that the only thing that you need to become successful is one person willing to believe in you. And he didn’t have that one person. Luckily, Ben has been that person for me. But I think about Jamar probably three to four times a week. If I could go back in time and ask my dad to have Jamar move in with us, I’d do it in a second.  Knowing that there are so many kids out there like him that I can influence in some small way, gives me the energy to do my job, and to do it well.


Who do you know, that when they step onto the court, makes everyone around them better?

There are a couple people that come to mind, but whenever my Give N’Grow partner, Ben, and I are on the same team, I like our odds against anybody! He is one of the guys that will guard the best player, he’ll rebound, he will do anything to contribute to the team’s success:  he stays positive. No matter if you’re up or down, he keeps you at ground level. He makes room for you to do whatever you do best.


How would you articulate what Ben is like to someone who wants to be like him?

We have the opportunity to look at every single thing we do with either fear or love. We can look at it with fear “saying if he keeps missing his shots we’re going to lose” or we can look at it with love and encourage each other on the court. When you lead from a place of love things get easier. We coached a nine-year-old girls’ team together last fall and the lesson that we got to teach them was “when you’re on the bench show love.” Because if you see your teammates clapping, cheering, it will help give you the confidence you need. When we experience love and build confidence, we are going to perform better.

If I reflect on myself as a player, what I do best, is put the ball in the hoop. There are days when I feel so great that I can score at will. But then there are also days where I feel that I don’t have that. What I sometimes lack is that consistent mental focus. That really influences the way we have built our curriculum.  It’s so important to understand our mental and emotional space. For me it includes establishing a pre-game routine and establishing a mantra to keep me locked in at a high level.


What are the key components of your curriculum?

We teach six concepts:

  • Positive Self Talk. I am amazing; I am confident; I am thankful; I am powerful!
  • See… Breath…Do. The kids describe what they picture physically doing; they breathe deeply and relax; and then do it.
  • I AM. We Identify, Accept and Manage our emotions, whatever they are.
  • Next Play Speed. If we make a mistake, it’s ok: we move on to the next play “fast”.
  • Be Where Your Feet Are. “It’s the place to be!”
  • What’s Important Now (WIN). We focus on the current play, not the past or the future.


How has becoming a new father influenced how you coach?

One of the most common compliments I get from parents is my patience. If I had a dollar for every time someone told me I should be a teacher I would be the highest paid teacher on the planet! What Remi, my daughter, has done for me is provide clarity of what I’m here to do relative to my life and my family. If I could be the ghost of my own past and give my dad enough money to focus on his music career, he would have pursued that in a heartbeat, because I know the stress that he endured working in a factory every day in a job he did not love. I’m in the wonderful position now to give my best to other kids, which will in turn allow me to give my best to Remi as well when I get home. She’s such a key part of my motivation to be happy and not let negativity enter into my life.



The Catalytic Corner features interviews with individuals who have an out-sized impact on the performance of those around them.  This article is authored by Jerry Toomer and Julia North.  

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Click this link to learn more about the Full-Time Parent, Part-Time Coach pocket guide, co-authored by Jerry Toomer, John Shertzer and Ben Cecchini.

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