Why We Let Her Play

On Saturday, Kate and some of her teammates found out they were badass.

They’re playing basketball for the YMCA. Shea is coaching them. He’s taught them to run the 3rd and 4th grade version of the Michigan State offense. You should see my girl set a pick. It’s a thing of beauty. And she only had to set it once. The rest of the game, that poor other girl was looking over her shoulder.

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That’s Kate setting the pick and Abby rolling off. Down inside is JoJo, waiting for the outlet.

As any coach of young girls will tell you, it’s a struggle to get them to be aggressive. Part of it is nature, but part of it is nurture, too. There’s something to that song Sit Still, Look Pretty and if you disagree consider this:  Coaches implore boy’s teams to stop shooting and pass. But they implore girl’s teams to stop passing and shoot.

All week, Shea worked with our team on stealing the ball. Because they wouldn’t. Would not. And Kate let go of a contested rebound two weeks ago because it was the other girl’s turn to have it. So every day when she woke up and before she went to bed he said to her “Kate, what do you do if someone sticks the ball in your face?”

“You steal it, dad.”

“That’s right. Then what do you do?”

“You drive for the basket.”

The team we played beat us four times last year because they have a gifted little point guard whose older brothers have taught her well. She was the star of the league because no one would challenge her.

Saturday, Kate stole the ball from her in the first thirty seconds of the game, and it was on. I mean on. As a team, we had over 20 steals and ended that game pink-cheeked, sweaty and winners. Our girls were lit up. You know why?

Because they LIT IT UP and no one told them to slow down, be quiet, or fix their hair.

I can make an argument that the song and dance class Kate takes and her desire to play the guitar and her artistic talents will all contribute to her sense of self-worth and giftedness.

But not the way sports will. Nothing else will ground her strength to her feet and help her hold her space in quite the same way.

Sports will raise her chin, her goals and her voice. And that is why we let her play.

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Ok, you got me.

“Let her play”. Ha!

As if we could stop her.

 

God is a Sports Fan

On Sunday, Gabe’s football team—which hasn’t lost a game in five years—was down 18-14 at halftime of their playoff game.

We’ve only been on this team for a season so the mystique of the Undefeated is new to us.

I was proud of how they all handled it. Coach kept his cool. The parents kept cheering positively, with the exception of me and Shea and AJ’s mom–but to be fair, Gabe and AJ were being held for twenty plays before the refs actually threw a fricking flag.

Still, Gabe’s eyes were wide and his eyebrows were floating around his hairline, which is family code for “I’m freaking out.” He kept looking at me, but the league frowns on parents doing pep talks on the sideline so I just gave him a thumbs-up and a smile.

Thirty seconds before halftime ended, it hit me: between Mass and Sunday School and pre-game practice, we hadn’t prayed. So then I did get up and walk down to the sideline. He saw me coming and when I said “We didn’t pray” he stood on his tiptoes and reached his hand up to the railing. I grabbed it and we prayed this prayer:

Dear Lord,

In the battle that goes on in life,

We ask but a field that is fair

Give us the strength to meet the strife

The courage to do and dare.

If we should win let it be by the code with our faith and our honor high.

If we should lose let us stand by the road and cheer as the winners go by.

His eyebrows went back to their normal place and in the second half the refs found their flags and the offense got their feet under them and we won the game 28-18.

Afterwards he came to me and said “It’s because we prayed.”

Oh buddy. He comes from a long line of athletes who pray. In high school, we hit the quiet cool of the church for a decade of the rosary before every game. When we made the play-offs, it was a full rosary. Then we prayed the Memorare on the court before lining up, along with a shout-out to St. Therese: Little Flower, show your power, help us in this needy hour. The end of every huddle went like this: Our Lady, Queen of Victory…pray for us…St. Anthony…pray for us.

When I coached, we did the same, except I replaced the Memorare with the prayer I say with my kids. You ain’t heard nothing in a huddle until you’ve heard high school boys pray to “cheer as the winners go by”, although one later admitted to me that he crossed his fingers every time he said that part.

But it was never superstition. It was what we did, but not what we needed to do to win, like wearing lucky socks or sitting in the same seats on the bus.  I think that’s a really important conversation Gabe and I will have. His team didn’t win because Gabe and I prayed. My teams didn’t win because we prayed. God doesn’t work on a pray to play basis.

But did we play better because we took those moments to be centered in the presence of God first, to lay down our cares and worries? To remember that win or lose, we were beloved children of God? I did. I looked forward to the empty, darkened church and the murmured prayers of my teammates. As a coach, I wanted my players to know that peace.

I loved our voices raised in prayer together. I loved Gabe’s dirty, reaching fingers in my hand as we prayed in the rain. And the sweet bowed heads of Kate and her teammate Jo as we prayed in the gym. I loved watching high school players pray over each other on the sideline of their public school game a few weeks ago. I love how Tim Tebow—that’s right, I said it—leaps into the stands to pray over fans in distress.

And that’s how I know God is a sports fan.

“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

                                                                                                                                                Matthew 18:20

THIS was the greatest win

That kid made a big shot Monday night. And the Villanova-North Carolina game will go down as one of the greatest.

But not THE greatest.

And I’m not talking about Laettner. Or Edney.

I’m talking about one Easter Sunday morning when I was a senior in college. I was huddled in the corner of a 1940s farmhouse in Massachusetts with my roommate’s newborn cousin asleep on my lap. Everyone else was crowded around the TV watching the Championship game.

One team, a perennial powerhouse, with two National Championships and three second place finishes under their belt. The other team had never won the title.

The game was close except for one stretch in the second half one team carved a 7 point lead. With 48 seconds left, though, they were all tied up.

Then with fourteen seconds to go, the favorite went ahead on a jumper. The score: 59-57.

The other team inbounded and with four seconds left, heaved a shot that missed. In the scramble for the rebound, the refs called a jump ball. Possession to the team who was losing with .7 seconds on the clock.

Time out. Then another time out to reset the play.

Less than a second. National championship on the line.

I remember the conversation: Do they shoot for OT?

Would you?

Watch:

I screamed so loud I woke the baby.

No one talks about this game. It never gets mentioned in the conversation about greatest games. We know why, because the players had ponytails. And (John Gibbons, I’m looking at you) probably wore dresses.

But tell me a game that was closer, with less options than North Carolina inbounding the ball from underneath the basket all the way out to the three point line, bypassing their 6’5” big girl in the paint and their clutch guard at the free throw line to hit the 3 guard more known for rebounds than shots?

Show me a college coaching decision with more steely hubris than that one.

I don’t think you can.

.7 seconds. For the win.

Do One Thing Right

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Coaching taught me that you better never call a time-out unless you have a plan.

What in the name of sweet baby Jesus are you doing out there????? is not a plan.

Once I made the commitment to come to a time-out with a plan to climb out of whatever hole we were in, I was forced to look at the game differently.

I had to see what we were doing well.

How else could I have a plan? You can’t tell your team Keep doing that thing that’s not working and hope to hell it works this time. When one part of our game fell apart, we had to make up for it somewhere else. So when I called a time out, I tried to start it with Ok, here’s how we’re going to fix this.

(Tried. Tried so VERY hard. But sometimes sweet baby Jesus got the best of me…)

In our worst moments, the plan was to take it all the way back to the basics.

Pass, hit, serve.

Do one thing right. Then do two. Then three and four and on and on until it’s finished.

Gabriel just played a game like this, against a team that beat them badly the first time they played. Nothing worked. Not one thing.

But this time, the defense got their feet under them and it was a different game. They still lost, but it was a victory too—they stood their ground against a team that is bigger and faster than they are. We can’t win every game, but we can win moments and quarters and halves. And sometimes that’s enough.

Life is like this, too.

It’s very rare for everything to go bad at once. Usually, it’s one or two things, but I can get so focused on them that I feel overwhelmed.

Instead, I have to see what I’m doing right, and keep doing it. I have to take it back to the basics of faith, hope and love. I have to solve one problem, live through one hour, take one step. That’s all. Just one. Then two. Then three and four and on and on until I am back on my physical, emotional or spiritual feet.

This is how we welcomed our second child, and then our third. We folded those babies into our lives one hour, one day, one week at a time.

It’s how I survived my cancer and post-partum anxiety—one doctor’s appointment, one medicine, one blood test at a time.

It’s how Dana is surviving her summer—one breath, one prayer, one decision at a time.

So when it feels like I’m getting beat four ways til Christmas, I try to remember these rules:

Don’t call a timeout unless you have a plan.

Focus on what’s working, instead of what’s not.

When all else fails, go back to the basics.

Do one thing right.

When It Stops Being A Game

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By now you must know the story of the high school football players who clocked the ref.

For some insane reason, Good Morning America and Outside the Lines hosted these boys and their lawyer on Friday morning so they could rationalize their behavior.

Impossible.

When someone shows you who they are, believe them.

The ref may have used racial slurs when referring to the players. The coach may have told them to take the ref out. If those two things are true—and I am of the opinion that at least one of them is—then, so what?

The two boys would like us to believe that they didn’t want to hit the ref, but they were following orders. And that the coach who told them to make the hit is like a father to them, so they obeyed.

I laughed out loud because this approach is typical to their generation. Nothing is ever their fault–even when we have them on tape.  Hopefully some adult in their lives will seize on this moment to teach them about personal accountability.

It’s not just what the kids said. It was the comments underneath the article, too. A lot of commenters were of the opinion that if the ref said what the players say he said, then he deserved it.

“What were they supposed to do? Let him get away with it?” Or “If they hadn’t hit him, he would have gotten away with it.”

As if there aren’t rules and governing committees and administrators who can handle this very type of thing.

You know what would have made real, lasting waves? A coach pulling his team off the field to protest racist comments made by the official.

Instead, a forfeit was more costly in that moment than integrity.

When someone shows you who they are, believe them.

After twenty years of playing and coaching, I can say with certainty that these kinds of things do not come from nowhere. Everybody knows when a program is off the ranch. From coaches to parents to the school and district administrators—they all are lying if they say they had no idea this was the tenor of that football program. Also when they protest “This is not who we are, this is not what we stand for”.

Yes it is. The NCAA calls it “lack of institutional control” and it is never a surprise. Only a regret.

If you are going to let your child get mixed up in the world of sports to the extent that they are wearing a varsity jersey in high school, then you have an obligation to know what kind of a program you are sending them into.

People talk, and where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

When someone shows you who they are, believe them.

Surviving a Mixed Marriage

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I knew it going in.

And I knew what a big deal it was. Marriages have broken up over less. But Shea is such a good man.

So I did what women do: I told myself he would change. For me. Or when the kids came. And if he didn’t, I resolved to stick it out no matter what. I put on a brave face for my concerned family and friends.

When my hair dresser took me by the hands and said “Jen, you cannot yoke with a non-believer” I laughed it off.

“Darlene. It’s not like he doesn’t believe in God. He’s just an Angels fan. We’ll make it work.”

I come from a family that bleeds Dodger Blue, so far back that my grandparents watched them play in the Coliseum when they first came to LA from Brooklyn. All through my twenties, I was the queen of the last minute $8 ticket.

I know how to get out of Chavez Ravine ten different ways. Only real Dodger fans will understand the value of that. They also know that we don’t need no stinking tail-gating, not when there’s Dodger dogs and cold beer walking up and down the aisles. Plus, there’s nothing like a late September sunset over the hills of Griffith Park.

And Vin. Let’s don’t forget about Vin.

Shea became an Angels fan during his college years. He and his two best men were season ticket holders. They have tail-gating under the A down to a science. He was at that World Series game in 2002—you know the one, Game Six when the Angels were trailing 5-0 to the Giants going into the 7th inning. They rallied to win, forcing a Game 7. Which they won.

I don’t mind telling that story since, it’s about the Giants. I’m sad to say that we have Giants fans in the family. Every family has a burden to carry and this is ours. We married into them, but still. Shameful.

Before I would agree to Shea’s proposal, I protected myself. Our pre-nuptial agreement concerned one issue—team loyalty. We agreed that our male children could be Angels fans and the females would wear Dodger Blue.  That technically puts me up 5-2, if we count the four-legged females (and we do).

After a few years, we amended the agreement to include the rule that there could be no quoting of statistics over breakfast. No late night discussions on the strength of the NL West vs the AL West. No usurping of football games for baseball games unless it was a playoff situation. We do not rush home from anywhere for a baseball game and HGTV trumps baseball every time.

If either team ever made the World Series again, we would go.

If both teams made the World Series at the same time, we would legally separate for the duration of the Series and only reunite after a renegotiation of the terms of the agreement.

Every year at this time, we revisit the rules of our mixed marriage. Because almost every year, both teams hover on the edge of the playoff picture, forcing us to consider our options.

We also have a football conflict. I am a NY Jets fan. Shea is a Buffalo Bills fan. These teams play in the Same. Dang. Division. So two Sundays a year, we invoke the pre-nup for football.

This is a less stressful situation because neither of our teams have been any good for a long time.

I am sharing our story so that others know it can be done. Marriages can survive rivalries. Children of these marriages can grow up to be normal, functioning sports fans. It is even possible to sit in a rival team’s stadium and enjoy a game for the sake of your spouse. I always wear my Dodger Blue when I go to Angels stadium.

Once, a guy bought Shea beer out of sympathy.

Sometimes, you have to take one for the team.

Why I Won’t Coach My Own Kids

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My brothers and I grew up playing soccer, and my dad coached us all at one point or another.

It did not go well the season he coached me. The team did well, he would want me to point out. But our relationship was no bueno. We are very much alike in terms of intensity and I was at an age where I needed to push back—from safely across the room or huddle; my mama didn’t raise a fool. Things were tense between us the entire season.

Directly afterwards I switched to volleyball.

I felt then what I can verbalize now: for me to be good at something, I needed the full love and support of my family, in the stands and on the sidelines, cheering me on.

And if my dad was my coach, I wasn’t getting that from him. I was sharing it with ten other girls.

I didn’t want to share it. And for the rest of my career, I didn’t have to.

This is the first reason I will never coach my own children.

I did spend seven years coaching other people’s children.  Honestly, I struggled to have the patience to coach high school students. Some of my players were using volleyball to fill time until their favorite season started. This was hard for me. I wanted everyone to give the same dedication to volleyball that I had given. And I had a hard time dialing it down. My teams were fun and successful, but I was a hard coach to play for, and I know it. There are a whole pack of young women on Facebook who consider themselves “survivors”.

They are all still in touch with me, and lead amazing lives as grown ups so it must not have been that bad. Even so, this is the second reason I will never coach my own children. It’s all well and good to have survived a coach.

But I never want my kids to feel like they survived their mom.

The third reason has to do with the sport parenting culture these days. It scares me.

We saw it in football this season, parents who already feel like so much is at stake, that their 8 year old’s NFL dreams live or die in Mitey Mites football.

There was maneuvering for starting positions. There were dads looking ahead to high school, talking about moving into school districts where the rosters were not so deep. And there was tension and hostility towards the coaches’ kids, and accusations of favoring.

I don’t want us to lose sight of our basic family values. I want to insulate my children as much as I can from the greedy and self-serving culture of youth sports today. It wasn’t like that when my brothers and I were playing. I want my kids to love it for the same reasons we did, because we were strong and fierce and challenged. But I also want them to keep their values and their souls about them.

I can’t do that from the bench. I have to do it from the stands.

Somebody has to coach the kids. I get it. I know parents who do it well, including my younger brother, who coaches with old school values and a lot more patience than I ever had.

But I will never do it.

We should all know our limitations as parents, and this is one of mine.