Coaches Rule: Here’s To My Very First
We grow up and get old. We grow up and get busy. Teams are hard to put together, hard to organize, hard to keep up with .
It’s already enough of a battle to just roll out of bed and go do our morning run, our afternoon ride, our lunchtime walk. We learn to rely on ourselves because it’s too time-consuming and complicated and frustrating to try to get 9 or 10 people all together at the same place, on time, ready to go.
People are sometimes surprised when they learn how much I love team sports. That unity. That togetherness. The distinct resonance that occurs when you align spirits toward a common goal. The prowess and magnificence of a truly good coach who can bring it all together – who can bring out the best in all of you – and then make the whole even better than all the parts.
Do you know how hard it is to find a good coach these days?
I have been thinking about coaches a lot over the past few days – this piece is not new, but it’s important.
My mother was my first coach. She taught me things that I have never forgotten. She taught me things on the softball field that made me a better runner, a better student, a better friend, and a better person.
This one’s for her…
I find my mother in the dirt and grass. In a brisk breeze. In a bruise and a berry on my knee. I find my mother in my scars. Tiny shapes and patterns on my elbows and knees. Ancient relics denoting the epicenters of glory-filled moments and tragic losses, things that could have been. I find my mother in this skin that will never heal. In these shapes that burn memories into the physical space of my body.
I stretch my body out on the green, green grass of an early spring day and draw the smell of my mother into my nostrils, up into my brain. It pulls files from my memory and plays scenes back for me. She loves the summer. But, for me, my mother is the spring.
I remember tracing her long fingers with my own. During the winter her nails were pristine. Manicured and long and painted. She was always very good at her nails. There was never enough money around for salon manicures, but it didn’t matter because she did a bang up job.
She would curse.
During the first softball practice of the season she would inevitably break one of those nails and curse bitterly at the old, dented gold bat. She never used another bat in all the years I stared down her piping hot grounders and long, soaring flies. The bat was ancient and it wore the marks of many a well-hit practice session. The gold color was fading and my dad had re-wrapped the handle for her in pink tape which was always in some state of disrepair. It was like most things in our house: old and well-loved, not shiny but infinitely useful.
But as much as it was loved, it was always cursed at – particularly in those first few weeks when mom was still clinging foolishly to the idea that she might somehow be able to maintain her manicure and coach a little league softball team all the way to the championships. It just wasn’t going to happen.
I always thought she was much more beautiful without those damn nails anyway.
My mother could hit a softball at you so hard you thought sure you were going to lose your teeth. THIS is beauty, I thought as a child. I’d stand in front of her and snap up balls with a ridiculously large glove. I’d fire them back at whoever was catching for her and try to impress her with what was then a rare combination of velocity and accuracy. She could always hit harder than I could throw, a fact that nagged at me during the duration of my childhood.
Today, Sal stares at me with disbelief as I drop down on the living room floor to deliver a set of push-ups. I don’t need anyone to tell me to drop and give them 20 – I do it on my own. Little does Sal know that I am still harboring a secret fantasy that someday I will be able to throw harder than my mom can hit. Just a few more pushups…
She was as hard-assed as I was competitive. As in, she didn’t take shit from anyone. Reading this, she will think, “Heidi, watch your language!” but that is not really my mom. That is just some reflex she learned from watching too much TV, or having too many conversations with her own mother.
See, I remember.
And she used to curse like the dickens. And no amount of convincing is going to alter that memory for me. What most people don’t know is that I learned everything I know from her – and I can hold my own among truckers and sailors alike.
She tried, fairly successfully, not to swear around us on the softball field. But when the league tried to buy the boys’ teams new uniforms when we were more than due for them, she sometimes couldn’t contain herself. These are the moments that the rest of the team wasn’t privy to. The telephone conversations and her strained neck as she jockeyed her way through the old boys club that was Skyway Little League. Like I said, she didn’t take shit off anyone, and she wasn’t about to start with a bunch of puffed up baseball fathers.
They learned not to bully her. But, of course, they had to learn the hard way. They always did.
She fought for us tooth and nail behind the scenes. She fought for field time and new equipment. She fought for respect. And all that time, the team really had no idea. We just got pissed when she said it was time to practice sliding.
She used to tell me that it was all psychological. I looked up and nodded. I knew she was right. If you let them get inside your head, you’re going down for sure. Or not. Depending.
See, sometimes letting them inside your head can work to your advantage, like the day that we were looking a little lazy, a little unfocused. We were playing a mediocre team from across the hill. We didn’t really like them, but we weren’t too concerned about the game either. We thought we had it in the bag.
She waltzed over and got real serious, “Listen. I need you guys to really focus today. I really need you to get out there and give everything you’ve got. I’m just so mad!”
We were all confused. Wrinkle-faced, one of the louder girls asked what we were all thinking, “Why are you so upset?”
“Well… I’m just really upset, ok? I mean I really don’t think I should tell you but I just need you to play hard today.” She looked really pissed off.
“What is it?” someone else asked. By this time, we weren’t going anywhere until we found out what the gig was. She had us right where she wanted us. We were stone silent. There wasn’t a smile or a giggle among us. She was a fabulous actor. She even had me fooled. And I was her blood.
“Well, I really don’t think it’s my place to be telling you all this, but I was just over turning in the line-up and I overheard the girls on that team saying how they were gonna roll right over you today. They called you a bunch of creampuffs.” The last word slid out of her mouth like something vile.
“What the ?!” Anna erupted. She was loud. She was a bully. And she, like my mother, did not take shit off anyone. She would have completed the sentence but she knew mom would bench her before she could blink twice. Mom could swear, but we weren’t allowed.
Then my mom leaned in real close and said, “None of that. Now what have I always told you? You fight with your BAT and your GLOVE. I don’t want to hear of ANYONE on this team saying anything to those girls. If you want to teach them a lesson then you go out there and play the game of your life.”
And we did.
We kicked the living snot out of those east-siders. We beat them for being richer and for having better uniforms and for having new catcher’s gear and fancy bats. We beat them for being whiter and prettier and having better clothes. But most of all, we beat them because they called us creampuffs.
That was just. Unthinkable.
And we let them know.
Mom was always messing with us. Getting us riled up. She wanted us to care, not just to come out and go through the motions. She taught us passion. And unity.
Think about that for a second.
Think about what it takes to teach kids things like that. The seemingly intangible things that you can’t reproduce. You can’t break it down the way you would with the motion of a throw. It takes someone extraordinary to teach that kind of ferocity.
It was a cardinal sin on our team to ask what the score was. That could get you laps. Or benched if you did it more than once. Everyone knew the rule. And everyone knew what you were going to hear if you slipped up and inquired (she NEVER relinquished that scorebook).
Always play like you’re 5 runs down.
We got sick of it. We really wanted to know. It was IMPORTANT. But we got the same answer every time. The message was: never let up. Never stop giving 110%. Never get comfortable. Keep pushing.
And I cannot describe to you the number of times that I have applied this to my life outside the diamond.
We didn’t always listen. We didn’t always meet up to her standards. Sometimes we just goofed off and played flat and embarrassed ourselves. It happens to the best of us. But that was no excuse.
On one such occasion we got pounded by a team that we should have handled easily. We’d beaten them by 20 runs just the week before. We weren’t on. We made a lot of mental errors.
And that was what got us into trouble. See, the thing was, Mom never cared if you made a physical error. If you mishandled a grounder it was no big deal. She’d say, “Forget about it – next play, here we go!” You didn’t have to worry. You could strike out. You could drop a line drive. Whatever. It was ok. We were kids after all.
Now, mental errors? Those were something else altogether. They meant that you weren’t thinking and my mother could not stand when people didn’t think. She’d just about blow a blood vessel.
So after a game full of mental errors we were scared. We had practice the next day and I had never seen everyone so quiet. I watched my mom talking quietly to my dad by the car. Then I watched him leave. I knew something was up, I just couldn’t quite figure out what. He’d been dispatched and that was important. But I couldn’t put the pieces together.
To make matters worse, we’d been beaten in the All-Star tournament. We weren’t eliminated, but they gave us a loss that we really couldn’t afford. There were bigger fish to fry than those pansies.
And as if that weren’t enough, when we were going into all-stars, the league had wanted our team to combine with the very same team that had just beaten us. They proposed that we draw an even number from each team, 50/50. In my mom’s eyes, this was absurd. We were light years better. There was only one or two girls that we wanted from their squad. She raised a hell of a stink with the league petitioning them to let the two teams enter separately. We wanted our regular league team intact for all-stars. It was unheard of. The uproar was unimaginable. She had a lot of pride on the line when we finally went into that tournament as simply “The Patriots”. By losing to the team we’d rejected, she had lost a lot of face and she knew that people were snickering.
We did too.
And that’s why we were scared.
I surveyed the situation carefully as I started throwing to warm-up. The team looked to me a lot to gauge her, and that day I couldn’t give them anything to work with. They asked me what to expect and I just said, “I’m not sure. She’s been real quiet. Just be good.” We were stony and afraid. Waiting for the axe to fall. We were sure it was coming.
We were just finishing warm-ups when my dad pulled into the parking lot. No one else noticed him but I watched him like a hawk. His face betrayed her. He looked kind and happy. Excited almost. I knew something was up. She had something up her sleeve.
She sat us in a semi-circle and our stomachs turned. This was it. The tongue-lashing. The rage. She could deliver one hell of a tirade when she wanted to and, to our knowledge, we had never let her down like this before. Not this bad. We were in the territory of the unknown. Trembling.
“Well,” she started, “I guess I don’t have to tell any of you that we stunk yesterday.”
We looked down.
“And I figured since everyone already knows that that’s not how we play ball, and that it will never happen again…”
We looked up.
“Why don’t we all just forget yesterday and have some root beer floats!”
We looked puzzled.
At first, we were too confused to move. But then we all turned and saw my dad at the picnic table with brown grocery bags. He was holding a bunch of tall cups that he’d grabbed from our house. He smiled at us with a smile that only he can give. It makes you think that the world is perfect.
Elation set in as we trampled each other running to be first in line. Holly tackled me around the knees halfway to the goal (she had a lot of brothers) and I brought Anna the Bully down with me as I went. In the end Daki arrived first, which was as it should be: she was the best, and the nicest person on the team. To this day I have never had a better root beer float. We were reveling in an overwhelming sense of relief as we devoured Forgiveness, in ice cream form.
The power of that day is beyond me. I imagine that perhaps the rest of the team won’t even remember it now but I will never forget. I remember it as the first day of many in my life that I would think, “My mom if a genius.” And not in that awe-filled way that little tiny kids think it. I felt it in a really profound way. It was a feeling I would later identify as pride.
But I was pre-adolescent and just figuring out that I had to reject my mother in order to maintain any kind of status in school or on the ball field. God forbid she know that thought ever crossed my mind. I compromised by telling her that it was “pretty cool” and that I thought she really pulled a number on everyone.
I think that if she put this through her pre-teen translator, she probably got the real message. At least I always hoped so.
We came back that weekend to take the tournament. After we eliminated the real competition, our rivals from across the hill (the ones who’d called us creampuffs!), winning by just a run in the final inning, we had to beat the team we’d rejected again take the title. It was a 30 – 0 shutout. It was slaughter. It was redemption.
Absolved, we rallied underneath the 3 foot tall district trophy and fidgeted through the ceremony where resentful league officials presented us with our victory pins. My mother’s feet did not touch the ground. We were grubby. And poor.
And we were champions.
Funny thing is – we always were champions. Before the trophies and the root beer floats. Before the awards ceremony. Before anyone finally gave in and came forward to acknowledge us, we knew we were winners. And we knew because she made us believe.
Because she was out there 4 days a week with her chipped fingernails and her faded gold bat. Because she loved us enough to show up – year after year after year. She believed in us and, following her example, we learned to believe in ourselves.
She made us see past our crappy equipment and our not-quite-up-to-par shoes. She made us entertain the impossible. She taught us more than just softball. She taught us how to fly.