I’ve been waiting to write this article for four years. I waited and waited- patiently at that. I’ve coached the girls’ JV basketball team at my high school for four full seasons, which breaks down to 42 games or 1,344 minutes. For context, I began coaching the same month I created Happy Friday in 2012. Needless to say, at the end of 2016, I am elated to share that we finally won our first game!
It wasn’t easy. I remember the notable beat downs: 79-3, 84-6, 50-1. We routinely got the business from the stiff competition in Southern California. But that was expected since each year about 80% of the girls who joined my team had no experience playing basketball. My phrase was always: “Play hard and have fun.” To their credit, they did exactly that; Yet, as the losses piled up over the past four seasons, we all took something positive away from the experience- however small. Through all of the struggle and painful moments we endured, there were always bright spots that we could hold on to. That was something I learned to not only teach my girls, but also myself. When life kept kicking us in the face, we had to look closely and find the positive.
As a coach, I have three main principles each season: Build my players up, celebrate the small victories, and at the same time be honest with how we played and how we could improve. I’m convinced this is a staple to successful team building in the classroom, in any business, hospital, or managerial position. I applied this ideology to each practice, each possession, each quarter, and each game. Staying positive was not an option- it was a requirement. We learned from our mistakes and got better, but better for us still put us at the hands of defeat. Instead of losing by forty, we lost by twenty. That’s improvement. That’s growth. That’s the lesson I wish I would use more in my personal life. Celebrate the small victories- especially when there is only a dim light in the darkness.
With all of that heartache and pain that was tossed around these past four seasons, we found the brightest of lights last Tuesday night. Playing in our first game of the season, we were matched up with girls from a private school in Santa Barbara. Not sure where we stood as a team, I eased expectations for what we were to accomplish that night. “Let’s win the first quarter.” We tied. “Let’s go out and win the second quarter.” We did, by a point. Holding a halftime lead of one I stressed the importance of taking it step by step. “It’s even, so let’s just go out and win the third quarter.” We did, this time by another point. With only three girls on the bench, one of our starters went down with an injury. Cramp in her calf. Her night was over. Next one up. Shortly after, another starter fouled out. Next one up. We’re a team and we acted like one. Cheering each other on, we fought in the fourth. The win was within our grasp. We held a two-point lead with six seconds to play and had to inbound the ball from under their basket. The pass was made, then subsequently stolen by the other team, and finished with a layup as time expired. At that moment, I thought, “Are we the Chicago Cubs of JV basketball, never destined to win?”
Feeling defeated, the girls walked to the bench in disbelief. They all knew we hadn’t won in four years. They wanted to break the streak as bad as I did. Tears trickled down faces in the huddle. “They can’t do that!” one girl cried. Shock and anger escaped their voices. As best I could, I went back to the central theme that has helped me not only as a coach, but more recently as a person. “Everyone look at me!” I screamed over the roar of the crowd. “Take a deep breathe. It’s a clean slate. 0-0. We’re back to the beginning. We have four more minutes to play- let’s win the quarter and finish what we started!”
There were five points scored in overtime. Two from them to begin, and with just over a minute left, a sophomore, who never played basketball before, stepped into her shot- a 3 pointer at that- and swished it. The crowd went wild! I tried to keep calm.
We held on for the final sixty seconds and when the buzzer blared in the gym, we realized we had finally accomplished our goal. These weren’t the same girls who tirelessly battled over the past four years, but we embodied the same mindset. Celebrate the small victories, hold yourself accountable, and make a commitment to grow each and every day. You only have to be better than the player you were yesterday.
Crying from joy and exhaustion, the girls couldn’t believe what happened. We shook hands on a hard fought battle and went back to the locker room.
We soaked in the sheer joy of the moment, but through this experience, I reminded the girls to empathize with their opponent. If we felt joy, they felt pain. It was back to the either/or conundrum we are constantly faced with. Sports are naturally divisive. Beat the other team at whatever cost. They are the enemy. They are your opponent. Yes, they were our opponent, but they are young high school girls just like my team. At the end of the game, the girls would have to get back to their homework, and as teachers and coaches, we would go home to make sure our lessons were set for the next day. I wish more coaches had empathy for us when they ruthlessly put the smack down on our team over the past four years...
A few days passed and the joy I felt that night couldn't be wiped from my face. I was so grateful. Celebrating the small victories over the past four years was a challenge, but with perseverance, hard work, and a commitment to be better, we finally made it.