“Whatever you do, we have to beat this team!”
Eight eager heads nod, mouth consent. We all hate this coach.
Two of my girls are injured but have come along to support their teammates. Our center, a tall blonde, new to basketball waits for the ball drop. She easily catches the ball and dribbles towards the opponents net, seeing her peer pull into position as they’ve practiced so many times.
I played basketball in Grade nine, but that was so many moons ago that it is almost a completely different game now. I volunteered as coach for the girls, otherwise they would not have the opportunity to play. The game moves at such a fast pace, and I remember how intimidated I once felt out on the court. I nod to Nicole to let her know she did the right the thing. Lauren, shortest but fastest of my girls, takes the ball around her block and passes to Megan at the net. Megan shoots and misses.
“Good job, Girls!” I yell. “Keep trying!”
Ours is a small school with less then three hundred kids – mostly farming families – a tightly knit community. Because of our size, our league includes private schools, this one a Christian academy. We’ve travelled a fair distance to get here, and I marvel that the girls still have energy at the end of the school day.
The coach for the opposing team is a bastard – I have no other way to describe him. He yells non-encouraging comments at his girls, and likes to cheat. The first time I encountered him, I mentioned that I was uncertain in my role, so he took advantage and put his fouled out player back on the court. When one of my team mentioned it to me and I called him on it, he sneered:
“It’s not my job to police the court. You’re the one who has to call it.”
Unfair, I seethed. This man is uncouth.
Although I only have eight players – six this day – my girls have heart. They come out every morning and practice, and I often catch them in the gym at lunch hours. I could not be more proud of them. Seeing my lack of experience, one of the fathers has offered to run them through drills and guide me on the finer points. I still have a lot to learn.
The bastard coach is screaming now, and I see that another of his players has roughhoused Amy. Amy, also new to basketball, is hesitant despite her size, and I can see that she is being taken advantage of. I call time out.
“Hold your ground, Amy,” I tell her. “You are bigger than that girl. She’ll back down when she sees you’re not willing to be intimidated. “
Her teammates pat her on the back and the game resumes, but this time Amy takes an elbow to the face and folds in pain.
The ref catches it and the fouls in our favour are adding up. The opposing coach is red in the face. His player rushes off the court and I see her body shrink as she receives her chastisement.
These are just young girls, I think, this young woman no different than mine. They are learning, growing, and developing confidence. Or should be. This coach is missing the point. I can feel my anger building.
With just seconds to go to half-time, we have the ball, but just as Lauren readies to pass to her waiting teammate, she is kicked in the leg and crumples to the ground. The foul is called, but this is one to many for my liking. Something has to change or I will have no players left.
The buzzer announces a break in the paly and my girls huddle around. I can tell that their frustration matches mine.
“Grab a drink,” I tell them, “and come back.”
Despite my lack of expertise, these girls are winners. Our streak has been going all season. The dedication and willingness these girls show is remarkable, and it occurs to me that what is bringing them down right now is not the other coach or his too rough players, but my attitude. Always eager to please, they are taking on my agenda, and my agenda is not a good example.
“Sit down girls, and rest,” I suggest when they return. “I need to talk to you.”
I tell them that I have never met such a respectable group of students, that they demonstrate so much heart and courage that I am honoured to work with them. I thank them for putting up with my lack of knowledge and remind them that we are all here to learn. And then I tell them to have sympathy for the other team, that even though their coach is obnoxious, he is what he is, and it isn’t up to us to carry that burden.
“What we can do, however, “ I tell them “is set an example. You are good at what you do. You train hard and now is the time to demonstrate your skills. Let’s get back out there and focus on what is important. Show them how you shine.”
And shine they do – determined faces breaking into grins as they look to me for approval after each successful play. I am ecstatic, bursting, and when the end of game signal buzzes, we are victorious.
We will go on to win to the gold at the provincials – a triumph for these small town girls, who will ever remain gold in my heart.
(Note: Names have been changed)