I had been coaching the same girls’ softball team for roughly seven years. The one season that stands out was when the girls were in 8th grade, going into 9th grade the following year. We got bumped up to a different age group. My team was the youngest out of all the other teams, and the opposing teams were comprised of 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th graders.
A coach, who had been in my same position the year before, had warned me of their experience. He mentioned that they didn’t win one game, 0-16 and that it was the worst experience of his coaching career, thus far.
His final words were, “Get used to losing.”
In our previous seasons, our team had a lot of success. We were undefeated the season before, and the group of girls just clicked, so I was bracing for a change. And you know what? That coach was right. We were outclassed that season. But, the one thing our team did have was positivity. As a coach, I always came from a place of a positive attitude. I never criticized the girls or pointed out their flaws. I encouraged them all the time, on and off the field, by saying,
“It’s totally fine if we make mistakes. It’s not about if we win. It’s about the attitude we have and how hard we play.”
As the season went on, we started winning more games than losing. When it was all said and done, we left that season with a winning record. I think the positive environment that our team created made the difference. The girls trusted their coaches, and the girls trusted each other.
There was one game, in particular, that season which stood out as a defining moment. It was near the end of the season. The opposing team was smoking us. They were up 10 runs in the second to last inning of the game. Our girls were doing their best and playing so hard.
I told them, “All we have to do is hang in there, and we can come back.”
And, we did. We came back to win the game. Our whole team was cheering, high fiving and yelling. It was so much fun to see.
As I was packing up our equipment, the opposing coach came storming over to our bench, screaming at the top of his lungs. He’s about a foot away from me, threatening me, calling me names and telling me I’m a disgrace to coaching.
He said, “I’M SHOCKED THE LEAGUE LET YOU COACH, BECAUSE YOU HAVE NO INTEGRITY!”
I simply looked up at him and said, “You must really love your team and those girls, don’t you?”
After that, the guy fell to his knees with tears coming down his face.
I said, “Tell me about it.”
And from there, he went into the story of his team’s season.
“Our girls lost every single game. We finally had a 10-run lead, and I thought my girls would experience a victory for the first time. I wanted them to leave the field knowing they could win. I could see the light as the game went on. But, once again, we ended up walking off the field where all the girls were dejected. I just couldn’t take it.”
All I said in response was, “That had to be really hard.”
And, what surprised me the most, was the apology that followed. “I’m so sorry I yelled at you,” he said. “I was completely out of control, and I didn’t have the right to do that to you. I’m so sorry.”
He went on to say that I was a good coach, and probably the best in the entire league. What I had previously learned was that if you call out the bad behavior someone is administering, then it triggers a place in their brain that makes the situation worse. The worse thing to say in a situation like this is,
My goal at the time was to recognize what caused the coach to get so upset and get them to access another part of their brain, so he would calm down on his own. I listened with compassion, and I tried to understand what was taking place in his world, showing I cared about the experience and him.
Just because the coach was yelling at me, didn’t mean I needed to respond negatively. I chose to listen to the language of longing, rather than accusation. If I focused on the accusation, then I would fixate on the words that stated how awful of a coach I was, or the names he was calling me. Instead, I listened to what he was trying to communicate, which was about his team, not me. There was a reason he was yelling at me out of nowhere, and the root of it wasn’t me, it was something beyond that.
Often, in youth sports, our identities are associated with whether the team is winning. We all have a fear of failure and losing plays into that fear. The only way to not fail, is to win, at any cost. But, I would say that my 8th-grade softball team had a great season. We won some games, and we lost some games. The encouraging environment that was created for the girls was also impactful to me. I wasn’t going to let an aggressive interaction with another coach define my season. The girls did everything with grace, dignity, and encouragement that year.