Friday, December 2, 2016

They Call Me "Coach"—Reflections on a Season

On Sunday morning, I woke up to see that Brian Kelly, the head coach of Notre Dame football was the number one person trending in my social media loop. The day before, Notre Dame Football completed its first losing season in nine years with a loss to long-time rival USC (45-27). The Fightin' Irish finished 4-8; they did not win two games in a row all season. My greatest wish for Coach Kelly— who I have grown to respect and admire tremendously in his six-year tenure is that he take some time to reflect back on this season—which I know he will do...but in a way that is prayerful and poignant. I don't know if he writes, has a spiritual director or a consigliere, but I sincerely hope that he has someone with whom he can unload his thoughts, concerns, regrets, hopes, desires, and more.
I feel like we saw a lot of this, the past season.
For the second year in a row, I coached junior varsity girls' golf at St. Ignatius College Prep in San Francisco. This year, we finished second in our league. When I got home from our final match, a tough loss to St. Francis, all I could do was find my bed. My roommate saw me and asked me how I was doing; I couldn't even answer her question. I started to cry. I was totally exhausted. Earlier, a parent said I should be out and having a drink to celebrate a good season. I couldn't move. In that moment, I realized I had given my team everything in me. It should have been a sacred could have been. And that's why I have to write about it. At the time, I emptied the tank...I had nothing left. Today, I see things a little differently. I'm sure coaches understand.

Jim Yerkovich puts such moments and the demands of coaching into perspective in his essay, "We: A Model for Coaching and Christian Living." He writes
If you ever doubt the significance of your role as a coach just consider as Father John Cusick invited coaches to do at a conference entitled "Coaching is Calling" in Chicago 1998, that apart from father or sister, "coach" is the only person in the school who is called by their title. He pointed out that students don't say "teacher" or "principal" but the coach they call "coach." Father Cusick reflected on what it was like after his ordination to suddenly have people calling him "Father." He felt good about the fact that people were giving him the sign of respect after all those years of preparation but also felt the sense of responsibility that went along with this title and role. Likewise, when our students call us "coach" this is a sign of respect, but there is also a great responsibility to be a positive influence in their lives.
I'm grateful that he named coaching as a calling. He pointed to the power of the position, one that people don't often understand. For example, what people to say to me about: a) coaching JV girls and b) coaching golf is interesting. I have been told that girls don't care about winning, I have been informed that the only thing that matters is that my athletes have fun and get along. I have been led to believe that I am a glorified van driver. Whenever anyone even tries to hint at that role, I say "not on my watch." I mean it. I take coaching seriously. I am a teacher and a coach. As much as I would like to try to separate one from the other I can't do it. So much in the same way that teachers are called to reflect upon their practice, I believe coaches should too. We have to....after all, we have a very special title. Here are but a few take-aways from this season.
1. The more you know about your sport and love your sport, the more fun coaching will be.
This should seem obvious, right? It is and yet I would like to reaffirm its value. I came to golf later in life. Though it's not a language I speak with the same proficiency as other sports, what I know every week, every month and every year is ever-increasing. This reality made coaching more fun and more worthwhile for my athletes.

I have always told my team that I am not a swing coach. I don't try to be someone I am not. I love it when they can help each other solve swing problems, but I aim to be a helpful voice. I design our practices, I determine what part of the game we work on week by week and I should—I spend a whole lot of time with this cruel game. I have surrounded myself with some outstanding golfers; men and women who truly love the game. They have been my teachers, my coaches, and my companions. All that time and money I put into golf has only benefitted my golfers...and that development, both theirs and even mine has made coaching that much more enjoyable.

I would like to point out that Coach Brian Kelly would say, the more you care about your players, the more fun coaching will be. Totally agree. 

2. Befriend other coaches.
For mental health purposes, I believe every coach needs but one other colleague/friend—who is or has been a coach. I have kept sane by checking in for all of two minutes with my friend Haley, the head girls' field hockey coach, during our respective seasons. She listens to me as another coach. We speak the same language. Her challenges are far greater than mine—playing time, executing strategies, she is the head of a program, she is managing more girls, etc. She has never once made me feel like what I do doesn't matter or is of any less value. No wonder she's been Coach of the Year.

I've also realized we coaches understand one another, quite often, without even talking. During the height of our seasons, we can be maniacal. I remember looking over at our head football coach during our common planning period. As much as I enjoy chatting it up with him—and I aim to do so regularly—I realized that was not the time. He was in go-mode. The man has no free time. Coaches won't tell you that...but it's helpful to know it. 

In the 15 years, I have worked at St. Ignatius, I have coached three different sports: crew, XC, and golf. In that time, I have also befriended several of the other coaches in our league. We share war stories, exchange ideas, frustrations, challenges, and best of all, the sport itself. In the past, I ran with my two friends from St. Francis High School and today, I play golf with several of the WCAL coaches. One of my golfers loved to tell me, "Coach, the struggle is real." Agreed. I would also like to add "so is the bond." I am so grateful to have these coaches as my friends.

As much as fans wanted the defensive coordinator, Brian VanGorder to go...and all signs are pointing to the athletic director pulling the trigger, I have wonder how that loss affected Coach Kelly. I know they are friends; it's not easy to lose another coach mid-season.

3. Always put your best team out on the field.
Ah BK, this one's for you.....and I was reminded of this truth the hard way. We lost our final match because I excused one of my top golfers from playing. I regret my decision and though you can never blame one single team member, as the coach I take responsibility for not putting everything in place to win. I made an assumption about our opponent and it proved untrue.

Coaches know we can only control the controllables. Putting your best team in the game is certainly the first one at that.
4. Sometimes, the best song is silence.
So the van driver accusation has some merit to it. Because we are in an athletic league with Catholic Schools, several of our opponents are in the South Bay. This year's golf matches took us to Milpitas and East San Jose followed by too many stops at In and Out Burger.

One of my golfers, armed with a portable Bluetooth speaker played DJ for the 90-minute ride home. Though I really do like some of their music, by the time it was 8:00 pm and we still had 30 minutes in the van, I had nearly lost it. Please God, no more Rhianna. Girls would offer their next request and dedication about 45 seconds into the song currently playing. After hearing Lil Wayne for the third time, I said, the next song is silence. It was wonderful. Silence has never tasted or sounded so good....and then it was gone. Broken by Beyonce's "Halo," even I had to join in the singing, resulting in new heights of joy and team bonding.

When we finally pulled into the parking lot, one of the girls yelled out BEST VAN RIDE EVER! The truth of the matter is we won our match by one stroke against a tough opponent and the team played great. The music only their accompanied their enthusiasm for the team effort. As sweet as silence was, I'm glad they hold that memory.

For the record: the next van ride home was accompanied by the sound of the Giants' Wildcard playoff game. That may have been my best van ride ever.

4. Sometimes, when you lose, you lose
Every team faces a low point in the season. Ours came in the form of a crushing loss. We were defeated by over 20 strokes (in golf you take the lowest 5 scores of your 6 player team. We carry 9 girls and typically 8 girls play). The team that beat us was very talented so it was not shocking that we lost, but on that day, I asked my team, "Did you know that sometimes when you lose, you can still win?" They shook their head to say "yes."

I replied by telling them "today we lost and we lost. We came out here unfocused. From the start, our attitudes were abysmal. All I heard from the get-go were complaints—I'm tired, I'm sore. I didn't hear anyone talking about strategy. We have course knowledge, this is our home course. We had more of an advantage than we ever considered.  That being said, failure has been one of my greatest teachers. What I have learned from losing has made me a better athlete and coach. So let's leave both losses out here....what did we learn?"

Teachable moments like that one come about every season. I had to take a deep breath before my diatribe and frame my words carefully, so that message could be heard. 

Coach Kelly, I'm positive you had several of those conversations this past season. The fans will never know what you said, how often you had to say it and more. I'd love to know what worked...what stuck...and what you wish you had said.

6. Pray together
Probably my favorite ritual of this season—and we have a few—involved gathering at the end of year week to share a thought in the format of "Thanks, Help, Wow." I took the idea from the title of a book by spiritual writer, Anne Lamott.

I loved hearing what the girls were grateful for: their teammates, the game of golf, the beauty of the day, a playing partner's positivity, psyche buddy gifts, making good contact, you name it. Those prayers were never hard to share.

Their prayers of "help" were very personal. I appreciated how seriously and candidly girls offered their hopes and fears. A prayer for help shows vulnerability: it's personal and yet it's communal.

The prayers of wow, had to be the most fun. Girls would call out birdies...a near hole-in-one, one athlete's sense of style and her abilities. And wow! is just so fun to say...

The success of this prayer ritual is that it was what it claimed to be: both prayerful and a weekly practice. This was especially important because, after my speech on losing and losing (see above), I realize it was time for "Thanks, help, wow." Girls were able to say a few prayers of gratitude. When it came time for help, one girl—whose twin sister is also on the team, said a prayer of help for her mom. The rest of us had no idea what these two girls were carrying on this day...this week... We grew silent and prayed for their mom. When it came time for "wow" the team just gathered in a warm, full and real group hug. The hug was the wow...and the prayer.

Every season brings it highs and lows, surprises and challenges. I'm grateful for it all...and the ability to know in victory and in defeat, "coach" is a worthy title.

I would love to read what Coach Kelly might say about Team 128. I know we lost a lot of close games. I know it's never easy having two quarterbacks. I know that people have very short-term memories; he coached a team that was 10-2 last year. I truly hope for the best for him, his coaching staff and Team 129. Go, Irish.

Photo Credits
A huge thanks to a team parent for our wonderful team shots!
Coach Kelly

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