Sunday, 23 April 2017

A Coach's Plea to Parents

I came across this from a coaching friend of mine and thought I would share it this week.  Sometimes parents can be really hard on their kid's coach. I think sometimes we have to have some perspective about how complicated their lives can be as well.  It doesn't hurt to have extra people in the lives of your kids who support and care about them. Having compassion, understanding and allowing your child to have their own experience is really important for them to be able to grow and evolve into a strong capable person.  With this in mind I share this amazing letter.  

A Coach’s Plea to Parents

I am here, on time.

My mortgage is two-weeks late; my oldest child is suffering through a medication change and trouble at school; my youngest child begged me not to leave, and my husband and I haven’t looked each other in the eye for days. I spent much of the day holding my aging dog as she recovered from a seizure.

But none of this matters now. I am here. I compose myself and prepare for the next 90 minutes on the field with your child. And mine; she has already leapt from the car and disappeared into the growing crowd of girls.

Sometimes you wave as you drive away, and sometimes you don’t. It usually depends if we won the previous weekend and if you felt your child had been given an appropriate amount of play time.
Your daughter is funny and kind and thoughtful. And tonight your daughter had a great practice. She struggled with a new skill and shook off a solid smack to her ear from a ball. And, we laughed. She also told me something that has been bothering her, asking shyly that I not tell anyone.

I explained why she was subbed off last game. She nodded in agreement and asked how to get better. We hugged, she thanked me, and we moved on.
She likes a boy, she hates her thighs. Her best friend ignored her today and she still has difficult homework to get through after practice. She got her period in art class. And yet she’s here with me in the freezing rain, our cleats rotting and our noses dripping. She is here because her team provides a safe shield from the outside world.

We sweat together, we celebrate together and we all feel the same sting of defeat when the bounce of the ball is not in our favour. We step on the field with the best intentions. We try.

I always leave the field a better person than when I arrived.

In the time it takes me to drive home, dry off and microwave my dinner, you have hastily typed an e-mail. My youngest has fallen asleep on the couch and my husband is cleaning the kitchen while I sit at the table alone, reading how you feel I’ve let your child down.

You believe last weekend’s loss was due to my poor decisions. Your daughter would have scored the winning goal if I only had subbed her in earlier or let her play a different position. You believe they aren’t playing like a team should. You watched a Premier League game and they seem so much more in tune with each other.

It’s a shame, I think, that you missed the girls hugging and cheering each other on tonight while you were at the coffee shop around the corner.
If we win, I’ll read that it’s because the more talented girls got too much playing time; that I’m too competitive; that I’m pushing them too hard; that I’ve managed to crush the souls of the players on the bench. If we lose, it’s because I played the developing players too much; I am ruining the stronger players’ chance at future glory; I’m not pushing them hard enough. What do we even do during practice anyway?

I know what you’ve told her about me and I know what you’ve said about her teammates. And yet, your daughter and I both keep showing up. We keep trying.

I may not do it the way you would. I may not speak to your daughter the way you would, but she needs more than one voice in her head.

I am not a professional. I am a parent who loves the game and has the desire to pass that on. I accepted the role I was offered; not for a paycheque, not for status, certainly not for praise. I accepted this role because I have been where your daughter is now. I see myself in her missteps and in her triumphs. I have felt them all and I feel them all over again through her. I, too, have been bruised by a ball, pulled muscles in tough tackles and played with a broken heart. I also had coaches who believed in me, just as I believe in your daughter.

Knowing I had someone in my corner who challenged me and called out my excuses was the greatest reward of my years in sport. I vaguely remember the final scores of even the most important games, but I sure remember how I felt. Winning doesn’t promise pride, just as losing doesn’t guarantee disappointment.

One of my parents’ great gifts to me was their unwavering support of my coaches. They never wrote a letter, made a complaint phone call or disrespected a coach – even when my eyes stung and I desperately needed it to be someone else’s fault. It was my team, my game, my experience to have.
I learned early on that my coach was neither my parent nor my friend. I admired them and sought their praise. I hated them sometimes, too. If I thought I deserved a higher standing on that team, it was up to me to earn it. My parents sure weren’t going to earn it for me.

Criticizing your child’s coach might simply be a reflection of your insecurities or long-held regrets as a former player. That’s okay. We all have them. As adults we can understand this, but as a child, your daughter does not. She is being pulled in opposing directions between her team and her parent’s opinion of her team.

On her team, she is finding her identity and her place among her peers. It is here she will decide if that place makes her feel whole and satisfied, or if it makes her edgy and hungry for more.
Let her discover this, on her own.
Let her play.

Alison Belbin lives in Nanaimo, B.C

Sunday, 16 April 2017

History in the Making - Another Female Football Kicker

I was reading a story about a young woman that signed a letter of intent to play college football at Adams State University in Alamosa, Colorado, as a kicker on the men’s football team.  Becca Longo follows the steps of a few female kickers that have cracked College Football rosters over the years in the NCAA.  The list is actually quite a bit longer than I expected, according to Wikipedia, as it is now sitting at around 11.  What makes this story great is that Longo is the first woman to receive college football scholarship from a D-II school or higher.  

Becca got into football as it was a shared interest between her and her brother.  Being that her brother was 11 years older than her Longo found they didn’t have many shared interests so football became a bonding point for them.  Since her brother had a female kicker on his team when he played he really encouraged her to do it if she wanted to.  

Over the last little while Becca’s story has really started to gain a lot of attention.  Recently it has been a lot more positive but she said that it hasn’t been the case all along.  She initially got a lot of negativity including classmates making fun of her asking her if she was wearing her boyfriend’s jersey.  

The source of strength Becca has found has been in her teammates who all wore her jersey to school before her first-ever high school football game to show her support.  One of the biggest supporters has been her coach at Adams State Timm Rosenbach who treats her like a football player and an athlete not as just as a girl. Rosenbach has explained that his wife was a former pro athlete and so he sees her as a football player who has earned the opportunity on his team.   

Years ago I read “Still Kicking” the book by Katie Hnida who was the first woman to play Division I college football in the early 2000’s with the University of Colorado and then transferred to the University of New Mexico. She talked about the struggles and joys of being on the men’s football team. It is very inspiring to see stories like this continue to evolve.  Hnida put up with a lot of tough circumstances and harassment when she was playing football.  Unfortunately, she was raped and sexually harassed but those circumstances have made her much stronger as she continued her football career at a different school.  

In the book Hnida said “I never intentionally set out to break a barrier; I was simply following a dream.  But as I followed that dream, there were many obstacles that blocked my way.  There were times when it would have been easier to simply back down from those obstacles. But I realized that I had to reach deep inside and keep going to reach my dream.  I know that doing things that are important or significant seldom come easy. I owed it to myself and to those who believed in me.  I wasn’t going to let anyone take away something that was in my heart.”  

There are things that are just innate in people who push to do great things in life. I think the thing that is most interesting is that we are all humans and sometimes we focus so much on the things that make us different than one another.  There are so many things that we have in common. I am not sure why that difference in gender is such a source of contention.  I wish it could be a source of support and pride that someone is willing to challenge the boundaries in an area where they can excel and contribute in such a positive way. I really hope that Becca has a more positive experience in the next phase of her life.   

Hnida went on to say in her book “Sitting here. I can just smell it. Football. The sweat, the fresh-cut grass, the night air. God I love it.  It’s hard to believe everything I’ve gone through to get to this point - so much pain, so much heartache. But when you are doing something that has never been done before, there is no blueprint to follow. There is no instruction manual, no emergency button, nothing solid to rely on. You just go day by day.  I don’t regret a second of any of it, though - none of the work, the hurt, or the disappointments I’ve gone through chasing my dream… it’s made me stronger, forced me to look deeper and strive for more. No matter what I have gone through, no matter what I have to go through, I am going to make this happen.  I know who I am and I know where I am supposed to be - on the football field, still kicking.”  

Wishing Becca Longo all the best as she embarks on her journey and the full weight of her experience.  I hope you take it further than Katie and the other women did before you!  You are going to do great!  

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Force of Nature - Pat Summitt

Pat Summitt was a force of nature on the basketball court.  I always meant to write about her after she died back in June of 2016 but other ideas seemed to take precedents. This week I decided to try to tackle my desire to honour her. I guess the most challenging part is to try to do her justice in a short article.  

When I think of Pat Summitt two images come to mind I think of her icy stare standing at half court with her arms crossed or I think about her yelling her head off on the sidelines into the court.  Always dressed up in stylish trendy outfits for the times in both instances.  She was an intense take no prisons type of lady and seemed to have an ability to bend other people into submission with a simple glance in their direction.  

Over her career Pat’s accomplishments are many, some of which include: 
- Amassing 1098 wins 
- Winning 8 NCAA Division 1 Championships 
- Earning Coach of the Year 7 times 
- Winning 2 Olympic Gold Medals as a Coach 
- Winning an Olympic Silver Medal as a Player 
- Received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 

Back in 1974, when Pat started coaching at the University of Tennessee she was a 22 year old graduate assistant. She took over the reigns of the team as the Head Coach when the previous coach suddenly quit the very next season. This meant that she wasn’t more than a year or two older than many of her players.  I am not sure how many female coaches there would have been in women’s college basketball during that time but it certainly wasn’t many.  Her monthly salary her first year was $250 and it was also her responsibility to wash the uniforms and drive the van during team trips.  Pat was an enormous influence in changing the course of women’s basketball from early 1970’s until she passed in 2016.  

One of the players Pat coached was Candace Parker who went on to play in the WNBA.  In her book “Sum It Up” Pat regales the tail of benching Candace twice.  The first time was because she wasn’t listening to the instructions and wasn’t denying the ball to the middle.  Pat told her “You either stick to it, or you won’t play.” The team was trailing at the time but Pat didn’t care it was the principle of it that made her sit Candace.  Pat mentioned that part of her wanted to see how her team would respond without their star player.  The Lady Vols ended up losing that game in overtime.  The second time Candace was benched was due to her missing curfew by 20 minutes.  The team decided to bench her for the first half of the game.  

Pat seemed to do everything she could at times to unsettle her players especially when they were too pleased with themselves.  One time the girls arrived at practice and no basketballs were present.  Pat made them climb all the way to the top of the bleachers and reflect on what it takes for their fans to get there to see them play.  The time the fans take to get to the game and the money they spend to support what they were doing.  She didn’t want them to take the support they had for granted and so it forced them to play with a sense of pride.     

Those close to her often thought Pat was just interested in taking the proverbial snow globe and just shaking it up.  According to her assistant coach that said this he thought she just wanted to see how the snowflakes would fall back down. Pat never wanted her team to get too comfortable.  Her team was played with an edge and weren’t easily rattled.  

Unfortunately, near the end of her career Pat was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers.  This caused her to have to step down from her coaching duties and pass the reigns over to one of her long time assistants.  During the process of being diagnosed those around her were focusing on all the things that she couldn’t do “can’t drive, can’t travel, can’t work,” and the list went on and on. Pat chose to change what the focus was by changing her attitude about it.  She focused on realizing it would become what she made of it.  She had known for sometime that something wasn’t quite right but she had been working her way through it for years.  When it was time she faced Alzheimers head on like every other challenge that came up in her life.  She didn’t resign her coaching role right away she decided to wind down her career instead.  

Although there were symptoms and she had restrictions Pat still believed she could do two things well she was able to still teach and lead.  She received word that Tennessee may not let her continue to be a part of the program which was a huge blow considering where she had taken it over the years.  The Tennessee program she had built had been a labour of love she had put her heart and soul into for nearly 4 decades.  

Pat had to realize that her battle with dementia wasn’t going to be a battle that she could win.  She wasn’t going to be able to raise a banner to the rafters this time.  The victory was going to be maintaining a small amount of say over her daily life and not feeling helpless on a day to day basis.  It was going to be all about buying time as much as possible.

After meeting with the Tennessee executive a role was fashioned for Pat to remain part of the program for as long was she wanted to be there.  The next step in making her condition known was to tell her team.  She gathered her players around and made the announcement about her Alzheimer’s diagnosis.  All of her players started to cry the last thing that Pat wanted was to lose sight of the goal or to have people feel sorry for her.  She quickly said “Listen up, this is not a pity party. Hear me?  We’re not going to cry over this.  I’m still your coach.” She went on to explain that when receiving a diagnosis like this you don’t stop living.  They were going to reorganize the staff and their goals would be the same going forward to “cut down the net”.  She also assured them she wasn’t going to forget their names or forget to yell at them which definitely lightened the mood.  

Pat’s declined was sudden.  According to research once diagnosed a patient’s typical life expectancy is between 8 to 10 years and Pat has already been dealing with it silently for years before seeking treatment.  The thing is that brain issues can be hidden because it is only the person who has the injury who can really truly understand the severity of it.  There are many things that can be hidden until it gets too bad and the person isn’t able to conceal it anymore.  Pat was brave for handling it the way she did.  She rallied against it and didn’t go down easy.  Her decline may have been rapid but it wasn’t for a lack of fight that it for sure.  The courageous way she faced it head on is incredibly inspiring and that she didn’t give up her passion of coaching until she felt she had no other choice. That way of living is truly inspiring!  

In my opinion, Pat didn’t just blaze the trail for women coaches she also created a map and paved the road.  At least 25 of her former players have pursued careers in coaching and basketball management.  Each one of the players she worked with over her 38 years of coaching are better people for having experienced her tough love no nonsense approach of getting things done. As mentioned before Pat was a force of nature and love was the counterbalance to every move she made.  I have personally learned a great deal from her and think that she is one of those women that could get the best out of anyone she worked with.  Rest in peace Pat Summitt.