Sunday, March 30, 2008


I've agreed to help coach my daughter Casey's 2nd-to-4th grade church softball team. I love this league because it emphasizes fun over winning. I know most leagues profess the same principle, but this one means it. We've played two games already and I think we tied the first and won the second, but I couldn't tell you for sure. This is all especially notable since the church's youth sports director is a former Olympics basketball player, Debbie Palmore. A quick web search revealed that at Boston University she accumulated:

22 BU basketball records, including most points, most rebounds, and mosts assists in a career. The only Terrier women's basketball player to have her number retired, she was twice a finalist for the Margaret Wade Trophy as the nation's top collegiate woman's basketball player.
So here I am coaching a team of 8 girls, and it's fun. That doesn't mean that I love every aspect of it. I had to suspend a standing dinner engagement with a good friend to run the weekly practice, for instance. In addition, I'm coaching a small group of kids with a wide range of experience, skill and interest in the game. That's OK, within certain parameters -- but this past week an issue came up that challenged me on a lot of levels.

One of the more talented players on the team arrived late, and it was quickly apparent she didn't have much enthusiasm for being there. First she was too cold, then too hot, then too thirsty, then too tired, etc. etc. While working on fielding drills she paid more attention to the dirt clods around her than the play in front of her, despite my repeated direction to focus on the drill.

After structuring her a second time I told the team that if I had to keep correcting any one player for not paying attention then the whole team was going to have to run. This is an old technique that is used not only by coaches but also teachers and even parents who have more than one child: giving everybody a consequence for the misbehavior of one or two. The very next play she was again dawdling and the ball skittered right past her, so I immediately told all the girls to drop their gloves and line up on the third base line.

I told them to run to the far fence and back. All of them did except the main culprit who walked the last way back. I lined them up again and told them that we would keep this up until everybody ran all the way. This time she sprinted like the wind while I called out to all of them that "team" means everyone works together for each other so that even when you don't want to do something for yourself you do it for your teammates.

She stormed off and hid behind the dugout until her parents came, then ran to her mother to complain about me. I talked to her mother at some length and explained my position and she said she'd have a discussion with her daughter later on. I tried to say a conciliatory word to the player but she would have nothing to do with me.

I was stirred up over this for a little while, worried I'd over-reacted. Later I talked to Gina and she simply asked "if this was a group of boys would you feel so conflicted?" The answer was an immediate "absolutely not!" That's when I gained clarity and realized that I was subjecting myself to a subversive form of sexism. A team of 10 year old boys would be expected to operate at a minimum standard of responding to a coach, so why was I concerned that a group of girls the same age shouldn't be held to the same standard?

This incident helped me see that the effects of gender-based prejudice are subtle and pervasive. I'm not helping a girl by treating her more softly than a boy, just as I don't help a boy by being overly punitive or competition-crazed. And every kid has the right to experience the pride and joy that comes from being part of a disciplined and dependable group of teammates.

The upshot is that she came to the game Saturday full of good cheer and energy. It was like a fever had broken. Her mother said they had a good conversation after the practice. Because of a conflict with a Girl Scout event we only had FIVE players against the other team's full roster, and even against such uneven odds we came out on top (at least, I think so!) Win or lose on the scoreboard, I felt a real victory had taken place.

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