GUIDING HAND: Greg Hand is enjoying the moment at a Princeton High swim meet this past winter. Hand, the longtime head coach of the PHS boys’ and girls’ swimming teams and the girls’ soccer program, recently announced that he is retiring from teaching and coaching. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
Going by the numbers, it is clear that Greg Hand knows something about winning.
In 23 seasons as the head coach of the Princeton High girls’ soccer team, Hand has compiled a record of 223-152-20 with numerous appearances in the state tournament, a sectional title in 2012, and some stirring runs in the Mercer County Tournament.
Guiding the PHS boys’ and girls’ swimming programs since 1996-97, Hand molded the Little Tigers into a powerhouse. In his tenure, the boys’ squad has gone 202-46-3 with seven county crowns, 12 sectional titles, five appearances in the state finals, and a New Jersey Public B championship in 2012. During that stretch, the Little Tiger girls’ team has posted a record of 152-63-2 with two county crowns, seven sectional titles, and four appearances in the Public B championship meet.
But for Hand, the subject of winning hasn’t been the daily focus as he has worked with the PHS athletes over the years.
“I have wanted to challenge the kids to find out what 100 percent felt like, what it looked like when a team was there so that — to me — is one of the great coaching challenges,” said Hand.
“So if you are functioning at 90 percent, you are not even close. We are talking about working hard every day but also understanding hard work better than you did before you came into the season or better than you did a few years ago and really getting to understand what your potential for work is. I don’t just mean physical exertion but for focus and recovering from mistakes and what that looks like when you are really doing it right.”
After doing things right at PHS since the 1980s on the field, in the pool, and in the classroom teaching AP U.S. history, Hand has decided to retire from teaching and coaching.
In reflecting on his decision, Hand concluded that it is time to take a break from his heavy work load.
“The normal demands were 80-100 hours a week for about 40 years,” said Hand, 63.
“My life has rotated around my professional work as a teacher and a coach on the one hand and my family on the other hand. I don’t have a sense beyond that, even including summers when I have always been looking to preparing for the next academic year and the next seasons that were coming up in the next year. I am interested in finding out what life will be like without that constancy of focus on my profession.”
Hand’s life turned in the direction of teaching after he matriculated to Princeton University.
“It was not something I thought a great deal about but during college, I decided to become certified to become a substitute teacher,” said Hand, a native of Pound Ridge, N.Y. who played basketball and competed in track for his high school.
“I spent many a day during those years substituting at Trenton Central, all five of the middle schools, and the occasional failed effort to be an elementary school teacher for a day. I really, really felt and saw something there. I learned a little about the teacher preparation program so decided to follow up and learn more about it and then enrolled at the program at Princeton. My certificate came through the teacher prep program with the student teaching and so on in my senior year.”
After a stint at the Newgrange School, Hand came to the Princeton school system in 1985 as a teacher at John Witherspoon. He coached the PHS JV boys’ soccer team and served as an assistant for the Little Tiger track program, concentrating on the throwers. He moved to PHS in 1988 and took a three-year hiatus from coaching soccer to get himself established in his new position.
Hand took the helm of the PHS girls’ soccer program in 1991 and threw himself into the job.
“The wonderful challenge of head coaching is to deal with every possible aspect of the sport and also the real time nature of it,” said Hand, who continued to serve as a track assistant coach through spring of 2010.
“As much as you can do on the outside to prepare, to study, and try to improve yourself and try to come up with ideas, a huge amount of the execution in coaching is generally a real time response to what the situation happens to be.”
For Hand, one of the best situations he encountered during his career was the chance to coach his children, Emily, Matt, and Pete, in swimming.
“It was one of the most special things in my life,” asserted Hand, grinning broadly.
“There was a period where I had Emily and Matt. Em had to stop her career early because she had shoulder problems throughout her teenage life. I started with Matt in his freshman year and then after Matt graduated, Pete came in the following year. They were five years apart. It was thrilling in so many ways. The obvious one in terms of a family connection is just getting to experience something with your kids unlike anything else you might be able to do.”
Seeing his boys’ swimming team roll past Scotch Plains-Fanwood 109-61 in the 2012 state Public B championship meet provided Hand with a thrilling memory he won’t soon forget.
“I have never seen anything like it, the opposing coach said she had never seen anything like it,” said Hand.
“They had beaten us the year before, they were marginally the better team. We certainly lost more state championship meets than we won and what that does is to remind me that in sports, the contest is the thing. Winning is just extra special but it involves a whole different set of emotions, it seems to me, it is a combination of joy and in some ways, relief.”
In reflecting on his soccer tenure, Hand cited the impact that special players made on a year-to-year basis.
“One thing that runs through all of the sports but soccer in particular and certainly stands out there is the different character that each team had,” said Hand.
“We were, depending on the year, losing more than we were winning but there was a really good soccer culture and some terrific young ladies and really fine players. I think of teams that were shaped by the character of particular players, let’s say maybe we had a back four that was really solid and one year we had an incredible midfield and the next year we might have a real character forward.”
With that character came some outstanding play. “One of the great things about soccer to me was that regardless of what their particular abilities were, when the game is really flowing and it is not just attractive soccer, it is very effective, sometimes surprisingly effective,” added Hand.
“That is so rewarding when you see it. Sometimes you see it in spurts but other times you would see if for an entire half or a large majority of a game. There were such players and teams throughout the 23 years and some of them made the game look the way it should.”
One of Hand’s chief aims was to get his athletes to raise the level of their game.
“I tried to help kids understand that they have another gear,” said Hand. “That is rooted in my own experience in trying to be a good athlete and seeing it in the world of sports throughout my entire life when people do the things that literally make me catch my breath and almost cry. Student-athletes do have another gear and if they haven’t found it, it doesn’t mean that they won’t find it and if they have found it at some time, it is worth remembering what that was like and trying to connect with that more often.”
In Hand’s view, the pursuit of that extra gear helps a team come together collectively.
“The final thing I can think of in my sense of how athletes and teams get good is trying to help them to see some sort of cyclical relationship between hard work and team spirit,” said Hand.
“When you start working hard and challenging them to be enthusiastic as they are working and they complete some piece of work, whether it is a swimming workout or a real challenging exercise that we are doing in soccer or a certain number of reps of a certain type in track, that hard work generates a certain kind of spirit. The discussion there is to get the team to want to do more because they feel great about what doing more feels like.”
PHS athletic director John Miranda lauds Hand’s quality of work on many levels.
“He was an old school coach, wearing a shirt and a tie to the swimming meets,” said Miranda.
“He was incredibly well organized and incredibly thorough. He was always respected for his sportsmanship and his teams always showed good sportsmanship. He was a great teacher of the different sports but what he taught off the field was more important. He coached thousands of kids over the years, with 100 in swimming every year, 50 girls in soccer program, and 25 throwers.”
While Miranda is happy to see Hand step aside on his own terms, he rues the void being left in his wake.
“He is going to be really missed,” said Miranda. “He is the best combination of athletics, academics, and sportsmanship, a shining example to aspire to.”
Hand, for his part, will miss the daily interaction with his colleagues and students.
“It has been a thrill to be in the company of coaches who are so good at what they do,” said Hand, who plans to remain in Princeton and is looking into doing some track and swimming officiating and volunteer coaching.
“I feel very lucky to have worked with them and learned from them. The second thing, for sure, is the thrill day in, day out of working with student athletes, to try to help them actualize their potential. Even if I am tired, you get to the coaching venue and that is gone for what generally amounts to two or three hours and it is just completely focused and positive. There is always this effort to find a way to be constructive; wasted time is never in the agenda for coaching or teaching and I loved that.”
And Hand has undoubtedly made the most of his time at PHS in setting an example of class and success over the decades.