Young coach a role model for Salem players

The seventh and eighth graders were losing badly, and getting repeatedly fouled on the basketball court. The girls’ frustration was growing, but coach Anthony Valdez was calm as ever. In the huddle, he told everyone to shake it off and to see it as practice for tough teams they’d face in high school.

It’s a moment that his former assistant coach, North Salem High School senior Jackie Bier, said demonstrates his calm and collected style. It’s effective, and she watched her younger sister learn to love the sport while on the team.

“The teams win,” she said. “It amazes me, the calmness of the coaching and the patience.”

Valdez, who is 20, started coaching youth sports at the Salem Family YMCA when he was just a kid himself. It started as a way to spend time with his younger siblings, and he’s made each team feel like a big family ever since. 

He hopes to one day turn his passion for coaching into a way to help Salem kids stay out of the prison system, something that’s impacted his peers and family. 

Starting as an assistant coach to his dad as a freshman in high school, he’s spent the last six years mentoring dozens of Salem kids. He’s coached basketball, flag football and soccer at the YMCA and Salem-Keizer Skyball.

“We request him specifically,” said Corinne Staten, whose 7-year-old son Oliver played on Valdez’ basketball and flag football teams. She said he supports the strengths of each player.

“He’s really dedicated. He’s always showing up for practices, never missing games. Especially being such a younger coach, he’s really putting a lot of time and effort into it,” she said.

Valdez said his priority is to make sure the kids are comfortable with one another. He started playing basketball at the YMCA in the second grade, and played high school football as a freshman at McKay High School and then at North. He was a shy kid, and said the teams felt divided into friend groups.

“My first mindset is getting all the kids together. I like making sure everyone is comfortable with everyone,” he said. “It just builds, almost like a family. And then it doesn’t just make the season fun, but you realize that the skill development is better, too. And they start doing better as a team when they build that family bond.”

When kids get frustrated, he talks to them one on one.

“Any mistake, you let them know it’s okay. You never get on your own teammate or your own player,” he said. “I let them know how they can fix it, how they can do better. It’s always a soft approach with me because I never learned good, getting yelled at.”

Coaching is a volunteer position, and he’s gone above and beyond to make the players feel included. For the 2021-22 season, he used a mutual connection at Nike to get the middle school girls matching Lebron James “Space Jam” shoes, then saved his own money to do it again the next year.

“With everyone matching, there’s no ‘I got better shoes than that person,’ everyone has the same ones,” he said.

Valdez also got the team matching warm up shirts that said “TEACH BLACK HISTORY.” Two of his younger siblings are half-Black, and he said he wanted to show recognition and support for their culture. 

Anthony Valdez coordinated matching “TEACH BLACK HISTORY” warm up shirts for the middle school girls he coaches (Courtesy/ Anthony Valdez)

His mom, Nicole Nash, described him as determined. She raised him as a single parent, and said the family had financial barriers to getting him involved in competitive sports programs.

“I think it really goes back to childhood. And he wants to be who he didn’t have, to be completely honest,” she said. “He just sees people’s potential. He knew his own potential and he was able to see some of the things that stopped him.”

When asked what it was like seeing him mentor his younger siblings, Nash began to cry.

“I wish Anthony could see himself through my eyes, through everyone else’s eyes and understand how amazing it is,” she said. “He’s never been a parent but he steps in and he’s so responsible. He’s so trustworthy. He’s just so patient. And I’m just so proud of that.”

Valdez coaches his youngest brother, Jayceon, who is eight. He described his little brother as impressive, talented, and with ten times the passion for sports than himself. 

“It’s cool to be a part of that and to be able to be there for him and teach him through that, because I didn’t really have anybody specific at that young of an age. I want to make sure that I’m – everything he needs – I want to make sure I have that for him,” he said.

Jayceon’s father is incarcerated, and Nash said Valdez has been an essential male role model in his little brother’s life.  

“I think that there’s not a lot of resources for parents like me, who, it’s only one parent and they need that role model,” she said. “It’s not all about sports, but there’s things that come through the practices, the responsibility, the teamwork, just the showing up and building confidence.”

Valdez said he hopes to have a career in coaching, and his ultimate goal is to make sports more accessible to low-income families. He said he wants to build a resource or program to help kids in danger of going down the wrong path find an outlet in sports.

“You meet good people, you build better bonds and ultimately you do better things. It keeps you busy in a positive way,” he said. 

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.