September 21, 2017

The Magic of Strong Coaches by C.M

The news on the pool deck is that the athletic department is trying to demote our head water polo coach to assistant coach. I also hear there are politics involved; there are quiet whispers implying that some of the parents don’t like the way our coach yells at the kids during practice when they are messing around, putting them in their place by reminding them who was an All American water polo player and swimmer (he was!)  They don’t appreciate it when our coach tells their babies to get out of “his” pool if they don’t want to work hard or follow the rules. It upsets some parents when he herds the team of wet boys in speedos into the small bathroom, closes the door, and yells at them about not having any work ethic, or passion for the sport. It seems harsh to some that he expects the boys to understand what it means to truly give 100% at every practice, and the importance of working as a team—both in sports, and in life.

 

In a new politically correct era, when trophies are given to every player for every sport, no matter how terrible or great the player performed, and where there are rainbow ribbons (which, ironically, happen to be the prettiest of all!) awarded to swimmers who were disqualified for a race for doing something incorrectly, I would stand on a podium and applaud our coach–for his “old school” courage, his passion for the sport, and for helping the boys learn something that we seem to have forgotten along the way…being the best is not a right, but a privilege, earned by those who decide to put in the time and practice it takes to truly be a winner. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, coaches were strict, and we were taught to respect them for what they knew—and for what we didn’t know but were hoping to learn. Today’s kids are a little more righteous, and personally, I don’t mind if my son has to work hard and follow the rules to succeed, especially when our coach takes notice of the hard work of some players, and rewards them accordingly.

 

As a freshman, my son Adam was not the most athletic kid on the team. Although he had spent nine years previously playing soccer and a few years playing baseball, his active mind always seemed to be on other things—building legos, programming robotic devices, building things, or playing on the computer. One day, during a baseball game, we could barely see his 9-year-old face through a cloud of dust where he stood in the outfield. We could only stare in horror as he threw dirt bombs in the air, trying to catch them with his glove. Something told us his baseball days were over. Adam continued half-heartedly with soccer for a few more years, but we were certain that by high school, his athletic days would come to an end.

 

He was actively involved in a robotics team, was earning almost all A’s by hardly lifting a finger, and seemed to be on a good path. Having been a trombone player in the middle school band, we assumed he would gravitate toward band in high school. It seemed like a place he would fit in and be comfortable. Little did we know that being comfortable was the last thing our son wanted; none of us really understood this at the time.

 

In the summer before eighth grade, at thirteen years old, Adam suddenly decided to try swimming for our recreational, community swim team.  His two younger brothers had been doing it for years, but he had always refused to join. He was a little out of shape, and it was hard to keep up with the older kids. For weeks, he came in last or close to last in many races, but he never stopped trying, and eventually his times began to drop and he rose to the middle of the pack. In the winter, he dropped the bomb on us that he wanted to try a water polo clinic. With raised eyebrows and open minds, we drove him to the outdoor pool twice a week, all winter long. On nights when the sky was dark with rain, hail, wind, and even light snow, I would see him looking out of his bedroom window and I waited for the question, “Do I have to go tonight?” But, shockingly, it never came. He even seemed to enjoy the harsh conditions, standing on the icy pool deck while helping to roll up the covers, talking and shivering with his new friends. We had no idea that Adam would decide to play water polo in high school and that some of these boys would be his team mates and friends for the next few years.

 

When Adam met his high school water polo coach during the first week of “boot camp,” something in him clicked, like a light that had never shone before. Suddenly, someone was telling him he had to work hard—really hard. Someone cared enough to teach him about setting goals for himself, and doing his best to try to achieve them. His coach was passionate, used his hands and expressive voice to tell the boys stories about his own life, and how much work and dedication it took to become an All American swimmer and water polo player.

 

To a captive audience of impressionable boys, his coach described the hard times, like when he was bit by a brown recluse spider and nearly died, killing his dream of playing water polo and swimming after college. Throughout the season, Adam became more social, happy, agreeable, and also began eating more than we ever thought possible. At home, his younger brother would listen in awe as he relived the torture of the drills–holding lounge chairs over their heads while swimming six laps without stopping, doing “egg beaters” (treading water with only your legs) for ten minutes straight, and doing fifty sprints of butterfly when they got into trouble. He told us how tiring it was, and how the coach yelled when kids were slacking off. However, he was quick to say how great he thought his coach was, and always called him “the best.” We could not have been more proud or more surprised at the changes we saw in him.

 

Last winter my son turned fifteen.  My husband had arrived early at the pool deck that night to pick up our son from practice. He stood back by the gate using his phone as a video camera, as he did not want to disturb the coach and the players. It was a dark, freezing cold, winter night, and it was pouring down rain. Through the chlorinated cloud of steam  that hovered over the water, my husband could see the caps of the boys, moving around like small, dark circles in the water. The coach was wearing his dark blue, fur lined parka with a hood, and yelling at the boys, “Line up, line up. Hurry up. It’s Adam’s birthday and we’re going to show him how we celebrate.”

 

Through the rain, he could see that Adam, our freshman, was treading water in the goal, and laughing nervously. When all of the JV and Varsity boys had lined up in front of the goal, the coach yelled, “Okay, start taking shots off of him!” Suddenly, balls started flying at Adam’s face and his arms were flying every which way, trying to stop them from going in. He didn’t stop very many, but his hands kept smacking at the balls. As the balls flew relentlessly at his face, my husband could hear the coach and all of the boys began chanting “Happy birthday to you…..happy birthday to you…” at the top of their lungs. Through the rain and fog, he could see Adam smiling, and the coach was laughing and smiling right along with him. When my husband and I watched the video together in private the next day, sitting in the comfort of our living room, we couldn’t imagine a better birthday gift for a 15-year-old boy. I also knew it was a moment he would never forget.

 

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C.M lives in California and is the mother of 3 boys.

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Comments

  1. now there’s a “gift” that sounds like torture. but, then again, i’m a girl who would rather play make-believe than sports raising a girl who would rather play make-believe than sports. so what do i know about what makes boys happy. ;)

  2. LOVE this article! Great perspective on how working really hard for something can make it especially meaningful and memorable.

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