BY JESSICA BISHOP
It is impossible to measure how much energy I’ve expended in my last nine years as a high school girls’ basketball coach. The mere thought of it exhausts me. Don’t get me wrong, I have undoubtedly found my calling in life, and I absolutely love what I do. The emotions I experience when I start each season are hard to describe—it is a combination of hopefulness, ambition, and excitement for what lies ahead. I view each player as an empty vessel and I spend hours thinking of ways that I can “fill” each of them. New drills, new offenses, new practice plans, new “norms,” countless hours spent at clinics and workshops with other coaches who are all in pursuit of the same thing. When I hit the ground running in early December, I am ready for anything and my energy level is through the roof—all with the simple goal of success in mind.
And then, every year, without fail, I deflate. I become tired and agitated. I doubt myself. I overanalyze and over think everything. I talk incessantly to my family and friends about every issue that has come up, every failure, every bit of drama, and I second guess the way I handle everything. I lose sleep, and I lose focus. There have been many occasions where I, as a person, feel lost. I’m ashamed to say it and it makes me feel like a sell-out, but as a head coach I have counted down the days until every season’s end for the past nine years. Yet, this is still the sport I love and the profession that is my passion.
“And then, every year, without fail, I deflate.”
So, what can be made of this? Are the issues that accompany dealing with the “millennial” generation of kids and parents simply too much? Is it really that hard? Am I, at the age of 31, a part of a generation who just can’t seem to “suck it up” enough and strive toward achieving a goal no matter how difficult to achieve?
While contemplating these questions, what I’ve ultimately discovered is a need to reassess what success means to me and how I measure it. In order to do that, I had to think about the first success I ever experienced in basketball, which for me was in middle school. Growing up, I played for what many would call a “fairytale” team. We won two championships (one at the buzzer) and had a record of over 40 wins in three seasons— with a supportive, enthusiastic, close-knit community cheering us along every step of the way. Basketball was life for me and I couldn’t have had a better experience. Yes, I had great teammates, great memories and great times, but it was the come-from-behind victories that meant the most to me. We won. We won after we had erased huge deficits with incredible comebacks. We won against teams that were better than we were. We won in big moments, under immense pressure and on big stages. To me, it couldn’t have been any sweeter, and if you asked me at the time, that is how I defined success.
Since then, I’ve had a lot of success playing both in high school, in college and in coaching. However, as I reflect, a part of my disappointment was never winning anything. I never won anything in high school or college, minus regular season conference championships, and although the teams I’ve coached have had much success over the years, we haven’t won anything substantial in my eyes. Each year as a head coach, I contemplate quitting. It’s too much work, too many hours, too much stress, too many issues with kids, and all for what? I’ve always said to myself, we haven’t won anything.
It took me a while to see that I needed to redefine success and what “winning” meant. This realization finally came to me one day this past season. The day began at 5:00am. I’ve been trying to exercise regularly in the mornings before work, and although I knew it would be an intensely long day, I knew I would feel better if I worked out—and I did. What came of this day was some of the greatest memories that I have as a coach and ironically enough very little of them have to do with playing or coaching basketball. In addition to coaching the Varsity team at our school, I also teach middle school history. One of our 8th grade players approached me before the middle school end-of-season basketball party. She had worked so hard to make gifts for her coaches and she wanted to show me what she had created: two beautiful picture frames that the whole team signed with a picture to be presented to each coach. I can’t tell you what made me happier—the fact that this player wanted to show me what she had done or the fact that she even took the time to orchestrate such a thoughtful gesture. Either way, I was proud. I then went downstairs with her to the middle school party, where I was greeted by more reminders of just how thoughtful kids can really be—three beautiful posters for the 8th graders to commemorate their achievements and four basketball cakes the girls actually baked themselves, in the shape of basketballs with our school colors. It was so awesome and so beautiful to see the players have fun and celebrate each other, and, most importantly, to feel like they were a part of something special. I left the party thinking, “Wow, this is what it’s really all about.”
Just then, I received a phone call from an incoming 9th grader’s parent. He and I spoke for about 45 minutes. He was excited about the prospect of his daughter coming to play for us and I was grateful to share in this excitement with him. I then boarded the bus for a state playoff game with our Varsity high school team. More excitement and more happiness. The weather was beautiful, a nice break from the darkness that the winter months can bring, and the kids were pumped. We won the game decisively. We played great team basketball and everyone contributed to the win. Our opponent just happened to be my parents’ alma mater, so many people I knew growing up were in attendance. It felt good to hear them say nice things about our team and the intensity with which our girls played.
“I didn’t take enough time to savor the little moments and successes along the way, or to realize that these moments would never come again.”
Though I left the game fairly exhausted, there was one more stop—a championship game featuring one of our middle school players. We caught the game just as the second half was beginning and I have to say it was monumentally more intense than our high school playoff game! It was a league championship with an undefeated season on the line for our player’s team and the energy in the gym was palpable. It came down to the wire and our girl was instrumental in scoring three key basket to help her team pull away for the win. The cheers were deafening when the final buzzer sounded and my assistant and I could not have been happier for her. One of the girls from the school team was there with another poster she made for her friend! These kids are really good at making posters. We hugged her family, said our congrats, took some pictures and left.
During the ride home, something dawned on me. Though it was an incredibly long day and I was totally exhausted, the car ride was not silent. My assistant and I talked nonstop about how great the day was. We talked about each game and all of our players, all of the fun and funny moments, and how grateful we were to be their coaches. After I got home, I began to think about how much of my stress from coaching all these years was the result of unrealistic expectations on my part —for both my players and myself. I didn’t take enough time to savor the little moments and successes along the way, or to realize that these moments would never come again.
Next season, I’m going to coach with a new goal—win the day. To win the day is to care more deeply and be more present. It is less about championships and more about memories; less about trophies and more about life lessons. I used to think I hadn’t won anything substantial. Now I realize that winning the day means winning everything that matters. When I win the day, I appreciate all the goodness that surrounds me in my profession, because it is a gift that should not be wasted. I will keep my focus on what truly matters: the people with whom I share my precious time and teaching the game I love. I will win the day.