Year one coaching reflection: HERE
Year four coaching reflection: HERE
Year five coaching reflection: HERE
Softball season has ended for me. It ended on a beautiful Saturday with a really tough loss in a District Championship game. With a third baby on the way, I knew this would be my last year coaching, and at a practice towards the end of the season I looked around and started to tear up. I told our other assistant coach, who I got to play softball with for a year in high school, "I just wish they could understand how much they will miss all of this."
To be a part of a small-town athletic team is to experience something that you'll never again be able to duplicate in your life. Playing college ball is different-- it's a different level and there is some intangible messiness and personability that is missing. Even putting together a team of friends later in life and playing in some good ole slow-pitch tournament doesn't revive it-- the essence of the team is missing. Only for that small window of time is something so special able to be created and experienced.
What is that something special? Last year I described it as "the magic." That delirious bliss that happens when your team wins; that you get to be a part of that is some sort of magic. That magic underlies an entire season-- always bubbling just beneath the surface, ready to burst out in one victorious at bat or double play. And as I said last year, there were times that we had to claw through a lot of dirt to find it, but there were times it still surprised us with its presence. And at those times, while I sat on my bucket in the dugout or stood on the first base line, I had to swallow a lump in my throat because that magic? It is strong.
But there is something beyond that magic. There is something beyond hard-work, and winning and losing. Because you will work hard at other things in your life. You will win and lose plenty of things, plenty of times. And then I thought of my last game. It was a cold, windy October day and we lost by one run. I remember numbly shaking the other teams' hands, wanting so badly to be in their shoes. But what I remember most? I remember heading to deep left field and falling into my teammates' embraces as we cried. I remember looking in their faces, streaked and red, and knowing they felt the same loss as deeply as I was feeling it. I knew they did, because I knew them. And they knew me. And we had traveled the same road, endured the same practices, shared the same highs, carried each other in the same lows. During games and in the dugout, I knew who needed a joke and when, and I knew who needed space and when. I knew their favorite songs and their struggles at home or with friends. I knew all of this not because I had a ton in common with all of them, but rather because they were my teammates. They were my teammates in a way that no one else in my life would ever be. That is what I remember about my last loss as a softball player: I didn't know it then, but I was mourning losing my team.
|I'm the one in the visor making the duck face|
There was a day at practice this season, after a particularly rough game, when I was running the usual core workout. The seven girls in the group were down on the ground, ready to do planks. "Up!" I said as I started the time. One girl wasn't quite ready, or was tying her shoe or something, and missed the cue. She started about 20 seconds later than everyone else. As time was nearing the end, I told her she needed to stay up for 20 more seconds to get her full plank in. "Time," I let everyone else know. Everyone dropped except the girl who had been late… everyone except her and one other teammate, a senior, who didn't flinch but kept right on planking with her. A few others caught on and before I knew it the entire circle of girls were back on their elbows to finish with their teammate. They didn't know, because I tried to play cool, but that small act made me get teary-eyed.
And why was I choking up on a normal day of practice while running my girls through their planks and mountain climbers? It's because last year I was a little bit wrong. Sure, the magic of winning with your teammates is strong, but the real magic? The real magic, the strong stuff that endures through decades, is the stuff that happened that day at practice. It is a teammate staying up in a plank after her coach has called "time" so that her teammate has someone to go along with her.
Most people don't have the opportunity to get to come back to something they loved so much as a high schooler. So as I was reflecting on the end of this season, and the end of coaching for me, I thought about what I would miss. I will miss the actual coaching and teaching parts-- getting to work with a girl on how to properly field a ball or lay down a sacrifice bunt and then see her do it correctly in a game. I will miss the rivalries with other schools. I will miss the bus rides [oh. wait. No, I won't miss those]. I will miss the feeling after a hard fought win. I'll miss having an excuse to chew that many sunflower seeds. I'll miss being outside, working on drills. I'll miss the thrill of getting to see a player of mine make a particularly spectacular catch or waving my arm to send them on to second after a big hit. I'll miss pre-game jitters and lining up for the Star Spangled Banner, anticipation lingering. I'll miss the crowds and the community support. I'll miss getting in free to games, let's be honest. I'll miss my daughters knowing the girls on the team so well. I'll miss the senior cookout and the team movie night. I'll miss thinking strategically about the game of softball.
But when next August rolls around and I don't get to step out on that diamond, I know, without a doubt, what I will miss the most: I will miss being a part of a team. I will miss being a part of something bigger than just me. I will miss inside jokes and sarcasm and high fives. I will miss sharing highs and lows. I will miss the camaraderie of my fellow coaches. I will miss that real magic.
As the final out was made at our last game this season, and as I once again made it to the outfield to embrace my team with teary eyes, I took a moment to forget the game. I took a moment to forget the agony of defeat and the could have beens and should have beens and what ifs of every inning. I looked around into faces stained with tears. And I realized the beauty of being a part of that circle.
Sure, I remember every end-of-season loss I've ever been a part of, but as the years roll by the result of the games fade, and in its place I see that jersey I got to wear. I see the team name on the front. I see the faces that wore that same jersey with me. And I think about the real magic of each girl with whom I got to share those seasons.
To the girls in the early 2000's who buttoned up those thick white jerseys with me: thank you for playing with me and for me and letting me play with you and for you.
To Coach Blythe, who made me run drills and then let me run drills with him: thank you for always being for and about the team, and for teaching me that picking someone up and encouraging them after a huge error is more important than what that error cost us in the game.
To the girls I've gotten to coach, who stole my fudge rounds and put holes in my shoes: thank you for letting me be a part of a team again.
The highest highs and the lowest lows of wins and losses will eventually get drowned out by the roaring memories of being a part of a team. It's something you don't get to duplicate again, but it's something you'll be forever grateful to have been a part of.