Wednesday, March 19, 2014

30 in 30: Coaches

This is the eleventh article in my 30 in 30 challenge, where I write 30 articles in the 30 days leading up to my thirtieth birthday.

Coaches go hand-in-hand with teachers when I think about people, outside of my family, who have had an important impact on my life. Throughout my life, I have participated in several sports, and each one there are a few coaches that really helped me to develop not only into the athlete I was, but the person I was too.

My brother JP was a big time soccer player when I was younger and so I would often kick the ball around with him when I was just a little tot. As I grew up, I continued to love the sport and my parents asked if I wanted to play.

Aside from the fact that I knew my brother loved the game, I knew NOTHING about the sport, but I was excited to play anyway! I couldn't have been older than seven or eight when my tiny little body got piled up with armor and I struggled to get down to the soccer field because the gear was weighing me down!

I don't remember a single thing from the first practices, but I do remember my very first game. We lost. Oh my gosh, we got crushed. I was so upset and embarrassed, that the thought of me even slapping awkward high fives with the opposing team made me feel nauseous. (yes, yes, as an eight year old!)

Good game, good game, good game, good game was the customary way of ending a soccer match. This was to teach good sportsmanship, but I didn't feel like a good sport on the inside! After I congratulated all the players the coaches were at the end to say "good game, too." Next thing I know, the coach on the opposing team practically lifted me up and said, "This little fire cracker, you never wanted to stop." The other coach, in an odd way, basically complimented me (I think that was a compliment).

That day I got a confidence about the game that I don't think I would have got if that woman didn't say what she did. I learned that it didn't matter about winning or was how we played and if we had fun. If we had heart in the game, then that's the victory.

I carried my fire cracker spirit within into my youth and two coaches in particular really fostered that and helped me use it to my advantage.

Coach Oberjohn and Coach Scheper were idyllic coaches. Assertive and tough, but also gentle and kind. They NEVER tore us down and always lifted us up with encouragement. Coach Scheper gave me the nickname, "peanut" because I was one of the smallest kids on the team, but I had spunk. When you get a nickname, you feel like you belong. I totally belonged on that team. We all did. We all worked together and played really well. I don't remember there being a single "star" because the two coaches to make sure that we were all stars. I know that might carry a negative connotation because of the "trophy generation" but that's not what I mean.

The two had an incredible way of honing in on everyone's strengths and also gave us equal playing time. For example, it was pretty clear that I would NEVER have a powerful shot. I just didn't, but I did have speed. I also could cross the ball like a maniac so my main job was to carry the ball down the field and cross it to the striker. It didn't matter if I scored zero goals or 25 goals, my place on the team matter--we all mattered.

It's hard to find coaches like that. I was lucky enough that I got two of the best.

I learned hard work, perseverance and also to accept losing gracefully. I am so thankful for that!

Coach Oberjohn and Coach Scheper: I'm not sure you will ever know the influence you had in my life. I am so grateful for the time you gave to the sport and to our team. I am thankful for your fairness and for instilling in us the importance of showing up, working hard and never giving up. Those lessons have stayed with me on and off the pitch and you are to thank for that.

Another sport I fell in love with was Cross Country. I began running for the NDA Cross Country middle school team and I wasn't sure what to expect when I began. I had absolutely no clue that this solitary activity was a sport. I learned quickly, that even though you run for your own best time, you have to also run strategically as a group in order to gain the most points in a meet. The middle school girls ran with the highschoolers. Holy intimidating! The JV and Varsity girls were awesome and never made us feel "small" or less than. They would always encourage us to push a little more. Running in a group, every few strides you would hear, "keep it up." or "great work, ladies." We chanted positivity with every run and it showed in our meets.

It was also during my time running for NDA that I came across another set of amazing coaches that also taught me more than the sport, but also about life. Bob and Hans ran the highschool team, helped with the middle school team and Julie coached the middle school team.

Hans taught me how to be tough-minded and to focus on the task; Bob taught me about bravery and courage and Julie taught me spirit and strength. When we had tough practices, or had to do hill sprints one million times, Hans was there helping us get out of our mental block. We powered through and we conquered. It was an amazing feeling to go into something feeling so overwhelmed, but coming out of it with such heart. I believed I could do anything I put my mind to because I had Hans constantly in my ear telling me to keep going!

The meets were always so much fun! It almost felt like a party instead of a race! During our meet, all the coaches would meet us and different points of the course to cheer us on and help us plan our next move. They would give us an idea of where we stood, how far we had and if we should pick up the pace. It was exhilarating! I remember one race was particularly hard. Actually, it was a bitch. Bob knew I was struggling and made sure to follow me a little more closely. He kept telling me, "Annie, you have this, I know you do. Push a little more." As I came out of a rocky trail portion of the course I felt my body begin to shut down. My legs began to stiffen and I knew that my ability to finish the race was vanishing from me. I saw Bob and I just dropped in front of him on the course. I physically couldn't move. This is where he taught me bravery. It's funny that it was not bravery to push harder past the point of your capability, but bravery to know when to stop. I'm not sure if he knows how important that moment was for me. I was DQ'd from the race and as we were leaving the spot where I fell, I looked at him and said I just felt like I wanted to finish. This is where I learned courage. He told me I should finish if I felt like I could. I had to put my frustrations behind me and set out to finish what I began. I felt an overwhelming sense of pride when I crossed that line-maybe a little more so than what I would have felt if I finished it the "right way" I had the support and encouragement of a coach who always believed in me--what an amazing feeling to have.

The final two things I learned during my cross country days was through one of the most kind people on the planet, Julie. I think she might have taught me the two most important lessons, spirit and strength. To be a successful runner, I think you have to embody the spirit of running. You have to tune out the world around you and tune into yourself and channel that energy into your stride. I learned early on that if my physical body ached, that I needed to work on my spiritual body. I don't even know if she remembers this, but she told us that if we needed to regulate our breathing that we should say a Hail Mary. It worked like a charm, every dang time. I learned that I was capable, able and strong enough to run any distance because of Julie. She also taught me strength. I retract, you can't teach someone how to be strong, but you can teach them to recognize their own strength. The best moment ever was when we were all stretching before our practice. I was pointing my foot up and my hands reached to touch my shoes. As I did this, my leg flexed and I saw this really weird and creepy looking bump on my leg. I freaked out. Julie came to see why I was near panic and I showed her this mysterious bump. She let out a patented Julie laugh and said, "Oh, honey, that's a muscle! You want that to be there!" After every practice, Julie always told us how proud she was of us and that she saw how much we were improving. As a result, I began to see those improvements too, and I also learned to celebrate them.

Bob, Hans and Julie - thank you for fostering my love of running. I may not run competitively anymore, but I do make time to run when I can! And with each stride, I say "thank you" because you have made all the difference in my confidence, my will, heart and strength. Every run begins with a prayer and ends with a blessing. When I have a hard time climbing a hill, I think of Hans. When I want to give up and stop, I think of Bob and when I channel my runner's spirit, I think of Julie.

Coaches are necessary and important to the lives they touch. Like I said earlier--coaching is more than teaching a sport, it's teaching life skills to develop kids into successful, kind and tough adults. To all coaches--Thank you!

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