I coached a team for the first time in my life this morning. My 14 year old daughter, Kaitlin, plays basketball in a rec league. I’ve been helping run drills during practices and cheering from the side line during our winless season. The regular coach is in Florida this weekend, so I filled in. The team lost spectacularly, which is a testament to my coaching skills and experience. However, in my defense, given the size and skill of the opposing team, even if I were the next Gino Auriemma, I think we would’ve lost anyway.
I’m a terrible athlete and always was (which is why I like to bike, all I need to do is push the pedals and avoid crashing). When I was a boy, I played little league baseball. I played well in practice, but at games, with people watching, I froze. I remember one game I was at the plate, last at bat, bases loaded, two outs, tying run on third base and I struck out. Walking off the field I heard a couple teammates talk about how bad I was and how they wished I wasn’t on their team. I couldn’t argue with them.
In high school, I tried out for the basketball team. I was overweight, out of shape and not very skilled. After a couple practices and a couple feet covered in blisters, I gave up. I played on my church’s local Catholic Youth Organization basketball team. We practiced one night a week and played once on the weekends.
One of my teammates was Donny. He was the point guard. He was the best player on the team and he made sure everyone knew it. He made fun of me, and others not up to his skill level. He would scold us during games and order us around. I have some fond memories of my time on the team, but mostly memories of frustration and anger. After several practices and games, I remember stewing in the desire to punch him in the face. I never did. I almost regret that.
One practice, some new kids showed up. I vaguely remember the coach saying we were going to scrimmage with them. One of them was better than Donny and I was on his team for the night. This stranger was the anti-Donny. Where Donny would scold, the Stranger would suggest. Where Donny would berate, the Stranger would encourage. Where Donny would snarl, the Stranger would be friendly. I wouldn’t break a sweat for Donny (though I would for the team), but during that game with the Stranger, I would’ve gone through walls for him. I remember thinking how much better playing on the team would be if we had the Stranger instead of Donny. It’s probably been over 30 years since that practice, but I still remember the Stranger.
I’ve been on plenty of bad teams. In addition to not having fun because of losses, if kids starting getting nasty and shoving one another under the bus, it can be a bad situation. A team and coaches need to work together and help raise the play of struggling players. Even a winless season can be positive, if players can dwell on the good plays, the skills they learn, the friendships they make and develop an appreciation as to what it means to be a good team mate. Life is filled with adversity and none of us wins all the time, so how to handle and learn from losses can be valuable lessons.
There are parallels between a team on a losing streak and a family with a member with cancer. The family can rally and support one another, even if they know the outcome will not be good. Or, the family can splinter under the stress. If there were pre-existing issues between members, they can be patched up or they can blossom into full blown arguments. One woman I met dealing with pancreatic cancer told me her family was never very functional. She spent very little time with them because they were stressing her out, not supporting her. She said she tried to only spend time with those who gave her “positive energy” and family members were not those people.
My brother was a much better athlete than I ever was. He played soccer and basketball in high school. Bart had three sons who he coached in basketball, baseball and soccer. He died in 2006 of multiple myeloma at the age of 46. I’d like to think we rallied to support him and his family. About 600 people showed up for his services, many were kids that he’d coached, so I think Bart showed them what it meant to support one another and be good team mates. I often wish Bart were with me when I’m with the girls. I could certainly use his advice and I’m sure he would’ve loved to see Kaitlin play basketball, a game he loved.
I see the attraction of coaching, despite the time and emotional commitment. It’s a real challenge. Other than most of today’s game (we had a good fourth quarter) I’m enjoying my time coaching. I really like all the kids on the team and wish we could have more time together. I wouldn’t trade any of them. They’re great kids. I just wish I was a great coach.