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The Reluctant Coach

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It happens each spring. The emails about spring girls’ softball begin to trickle in. My youngest is still really excited about playing. For my 13 year old, though, the interest has begun to wane. This happens a lot at this age. As kids get older, they begin to focus on activities they are most interested in, and although she has some natural ability, she’s beginning to lose interest.

Each year, it happens the same way. I get an email from the league representative asking if I am interested in coaching. I say no. In the next couple of weeks, I get more emails asking if I’m sure. Then comes the guilt-filled tome that says that we really need you, there are 52 players signed up and only three coaches.

Last year, I said no. Too many activities; I have a job, I’m trying to start a business, publish a book, business travel; coaching 10-13 year olds is like herding cats. This year I agreed to coach, but only at the last minute when there was no one else. I carried the equipment, made up the lineup, patched up bruised arms and egos, and I had a blast.

We live in a pretty competitive environment where I come from, but having played, coached, and umpired on a number of levels for too many years, I had decided to coach from a perspective based on these three premises:

1. Have fun

2. Help each player to improve, regardless of their skill level

3. Teach the players to work together as a team to achieve a common goal

Now, I like to win as much as the next guy, but I won’t do it at the expense of any player, and many of the players and their parents have varying degrees of emphasis on the three points mentioned above.

I’m okay with that. I explain my philosophy to all the parents prior to the season, and I endeavor to stay true to this myself, fighting the competitive streak in me.

And it’s hard.

Last year, we came in eighth out of nine teams. We won the play-in game and took the first place team to the bottom of the last inning before losing with two outs and two strikes on the batter. I was in tears then, not because we lost, but because we had come together as a team and my players left it all out there on the field. Thirteen girls, six who had never played softball before, and they played the game of their lives. You can’t buy that feeling.

This year, though, I had absolutely, positively said I would not, could not coach, for all the same reasons and a few more. My daughter comes up to me and tells me that her best friend said she would play in the spring, but only if I was the coach.

Sorry. No can do. No way. I won’t change my mind.

Then comes the email from the league: We need you, we want you. If you don’t coach, there will be 37 players on each team. We got equipment bags with wheels.

Nope, sorry, I can’t.

My wife and I share our email. She sees the email from the league and she tells me, in front of the kids, that I should coach; one returning player (mine) and an entirely new team.

And lo and behold, we win our first two games, and I begin to think I’m on to something. I tweak things a little, and we get smoked in our next game.

I was really feeling bad when I got an email:

Hi, coach. My daughter plays on your team and my two older daughters play on the varsity softball team at Dominion High School in Sterling, VA. Do you think the team would be interested in practicing with the high school team? The coach likes to do this.

Wow, I wrote back. They would really do this? It seemed so unreal. What kind of team would take the time just before their tournaments to help our little team?

I emailed the coach, and within a few hours, Coach Chris Tully responded with a date and two pages of things he wanted to try. He also invited the girls to come to their next home game and be introduced along with the varsity prior to the start of the game.

Who is this guy? I’m thinking.

I asked him what time he wanted the team there, and he told me anytime. We will work with your schedule.

The following Wednesday, I met Coach Chris Tully for the first time. Young guy; definitely looks and acts like a coach. I arrived late and he already had his team take charge of our team. The varsity girls really seemed to be enjoying themselves and my team was in heaven.

I started to talk with Coach Tully, and I watched as he directed the activities. The good-natured give and take between him and his assistants, the interaction of all the team with each other – this was just a normal practice and everyone was genuinely enjoying themselves.

C’mon. I’ve seen Hoosiers. I’ve seen Radio. I even played myself. Varsity sports is some pretty heady stuff.

Nope, Coach Tully told me as I thanked him for the invite for at least the tenth time. He talked about how it is important that his girls understand the role they play as varsity players in the community, and how each one of his girls had played on a house league team and dreamed of the day they would make the high school varsity team.

Then I start thinking that this is all sounding a little familiar to me. Have fun, work hard, work as a team, and always remember who you are as you press on towards your goals.

Hey, he coaches just like me! Of course, he does it much better and at a much higher level. After almost two hours, he pulled the plug on things, only to call everyone back to get a picture of the two teams together. A week later, I watched our team stand out on the field next to a DHS player for the national anthem, and I knew that all involved had prospered from the experience.

I want to thank Coach Tully, his staff and the players on the Dominion High School Varsity girls’ softball team for taking the time to work with us. I enjoy coaching this level because it is a pivotal age group, and it is invaluable for kids to have someone close to their age that they can look up to as they enter their teen years.

I also want to personally thank Coach Tully for reminding me that it is possible to improve and work towards a common goal as a team without sacrificing the fun part.

After all, isn’t that why they call it a game?

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