In addition to being a teacher and dad (and world renowned blogger) I also coach. I have been coaching about 10 years, usually multiple sports and seasons per year. My dad was a coach, though never for me, he started with my brothers who were a couple years younger than me. So I started right away with my eldest son who is now 15. Once sports got to be more about winning than about teaching and fun I left it to parents with a stronger stomach for benching less athletic kids and went back down to t-ball with my middle guy. My middle guy is the athlete. Better than I ever was. Natural born talent in that guy. Because of that we are now in the middle of our third very expensive, very time consuming, year round travel baseball team. True to form, I was the head coach for the first season but handed my team over, which I partially cultivated from when the boys were 5 or 6, in the second season when wins and losses became paramount to everything else.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand the merits of competition. I am not the participation trophy guy. And I coach hard and strict like I teach and parent, mostly when I know my players/students/children are not giving max effort in what they do. I preach trying, not success. That said, I just don’t have the heart to look a parent in the eyes when they ask my why their pride and joy baby boy is batting last and only playing right field 3 innings per game.
Winter means indoor travel baseball practice 3 days a week. But winter also means basketball. Since it is my middle guy’s “second sport” I do coach it and try to emphasize fun and learning not only athletic skills, but also what it means to be a part of a team. So most Saturdays in the winter I am at the rec center they recently built in my home town, right down the block from where I teach. It’s especially cool on weekends that I don’t have my kids because I get to reconnect with them and then usually after they leave I spend upwards of 3 or 4 hours being pulled or invited by current and past students to watch their basketball or indoor soccer games. I love it.
The current season is the first one where we drafted a team rather than have the park district just assign one to us. We went undefeated during the regular season. We were the only team to do so. Four teams make the playoffs and today, as the one seeds, we played the fourth seeded team. The winner would play next Saturday, the final Saturday before basketball gave way entirely to baseball until next year, for the league championship. We beat the fourth seeded opponent during the regular season by like 20 points or something. Today, in the playoffs, we lost by 2 points. Some calls didn’t go our way and our leaders, including my middle guy, made some costly mistakes down the stretch. But the better team today won. The kids were dejected. So many tears of 5th and 6th graders fell on the rec center floor. I felt I let them down as a coach and they felt they let each other down as teammates. I had to hold my son in a corner of the hallway for a solid 10 minutes after the game, reminding him how amazing he was, how mistakes were a fine part of life, and how basketball was just a fun second sport. He was inconsolable for a while. I did not let him go face the hallway throng that is Saturday at the Arc until he had regained some semblance of composure. I told him I was proud and kissed his sweaty head and watched him walk away with a little piece of me.
I had a friend whose young niece was playing one court over. The court size was cut in half, rims were lowered to accommodate the tiny little ones, fouls were barely called and rules were more taught than enforced. I watched one half of adorable action. Tongues sticking out for the effort, awkward running strides, and kids slapping at the ball more than actually dribbling. When I left the score at halftime was 4-1. It was touching, after what I’d just been a part of, to watch pint-sized ballers in their little jerseys and shorts and rainbowy socks galloping, skipping, and bowleggedly striding scattershot all over the place. The miniature-seeming court and uniforms weren’t even the best part – every single kid on the floor and on the bench also at one point or another wore a pure, innocent, unabashed smile on their little face. I started focusing purposely on those. Like medicine. Like sunshine. Ugh.
It’s off to a 90 minute baseball practice now. Games start really soon. I love watching my kids do the things they love and my middle guy loves baseball. And I know there will be some heartbreak in the upcoming season, there always is. And I will continue to teach my kid and all the other kids I coach, that what matters most is how you respond to heartbreak. As for my own? The vicarious heartbreak that is mine to own and deal with after my son walks away? Maybe I’ll just have to find myself a t-ball game or two this summer and keep track of laughter and wide-eyed grins instead of balls and strikes for an hour or two.