Mrs. Cockshutt was my first ever coach, well, she was actually my P.E. teacher. I was eight years old in the 4th grade and was beginning my year at a new school. Having skipped 3rd grade, I was a year and a half (if not two full years) younger than everyone else in my class which meant I was also smaller and weaker than most kids.
Mrs. Cockshutt didn’t care, in her P.E. class, we were all the same. Our school was an old sorority house, so we had this massive house/school with a massive back yard – complete with a tennis court and ample running and exploring space. Some days, P.E. meant running around playing tag and other days were more structured. One day in particular, we played a new game called volleyball tennis.
Volleyball tennis is exactly how it sounds. One tennis net, one volleyball, one contact per side with one bounce before sending it back over the net to the other side. I immediately loved it and when it was time to do our end of the year report for P.E., I scoured every Encyclopedia Britannica with the letter “V” on the spine to do my research.
In 5th grade, we changed schools. Lucky for me, my new school had a volleyball program and the new coach was sure to be just as wonderful as Mrs. Cockshutt. Al Bennett was my home room teacher and volleyball coach and one of the three main drivers behind Austin Junior Volleyball, which would become what is now one of the premier volleyball clubs in the nation, and one of the best in Texas. Austin Juniors has gone on to produce more Division I collegiate All-Americans (I’m one of them) than you can shake a coaches clip board at. To say I got lucky getting to be part of the inaugural class of club players in Austin would be an understatement.
I hit volleyball gold.
In 1985, however, club volleyball was very new and I was still very small. I was still a year-and-a-half younger than most kids in my class and my team was comprised of various grade levels, so while everyone was starting to get muscles (and boobs and periods), I was still wearing a baggy size XS and trying to squeeze nutrition out of a steady diet of grilled cheese sandwiches and macaroni. Not only was my body 9 years-old, my maturity level and emotional development were also the same age – but I was adaptable.
A scrappy, skinny thing, I had desire enough to reach the moon, but I lacked talent, size and let’s call a spade a spade – I wasn’t athletic – at all. Still, my school and club coaches were hard on me. But they wanted me to be better, right? So, I put up with it as did my parents.
I didn’t get better right away. I didn’t get better for a long time. After about five years of club and school volleyball (in which I spent a great deal of time on the bench), I had taken in a lot of really tough coaching. I had taken in toxic words about my ability, harsh criticism of my attitude, eye rolls, loud sighs, all the yelling and sideline body language that would shame Brene Brown into a corner to process. It wasn’t all bad though, I had a lot of fun with my teammates and there were glimpses of hope when I got put in to serve every now and again.
By the time I was a sophomore in high school, I had enough talent to hold my own and had settled into what I thought was normal coaching. I had no idea that anyone did anything different except yell and throw tantrums on the sideline or shame and criticize in post game talks. That was just what I knew and over time, it was actually effective for me. I used shame to motivate me to perform better. I used eye rolls to put in hours and hours of reps on my own time. As a player, I’d become somewhat desensitized – not immune – to it all.
But the thing about being coached by people who chip away at your confidence is that when it’s your turn to coach, you don’t know what else to do except have the same high standards and expectations for every player regardless of size, ability, desire, etc. You tend to coach the way you’ve been coached. That’s exactly what I did after I finished playing.
I only coached club volleyball for one season before quitting. See, I had a 16-3’s team, which meant I had kids all over the spectrum. Some were serious, some were just there to have fun, some were there because their parents made them play – for someone with high standards and unrealistic expectations, this was a nightmare. I did the only thing I knew how to do – yell, roll my eyes, make them run, communicate disappointment with my body language and who even knows what else.
Intuitively, I knew coaching wasn’t for me and I also knew, those girls didn’t need what I had to offer.
The last time I coached a team was in the 1900’s – 1998 to be exact.
Firmly planted in the 21st century, 2016 to be exact, I finally felt it was the right time to see if I could actually be a good coach. I’ve been “coaching” through writing and speaking and encouraging parents. In fact, my undergraduate and graduate degrees in Clinical Psychology were actually for the sole purpose of counseling athletes through transitions (and perhaps bad coaching), but it was time to get back in the gym and back around the kids.
Here’s what I can tell you from where I sit. I have absolutely no grudges or ill-feelings for any of my coaches. I am extremely grateful for the way my life through sports has given me a wealth of experiences and I’m completely aware that had I not been lucky enough to play for some of the best coaches in Texas (they are still producing champions), my story might look much different.
However, as coach, I couldn’t imagine speaking to one of the athletes on my team in the manner by which I was spoken, I can’t imagine telling one of them “you suck” or making jokes within ear shot of them about their ethnicity. My responsibility to these girls (and to my family) is to challenge them and encourage them. My job is to communicate their potential and ability and see them as individuals, each on their own path – AND to take all of that and help them work together for a common goal.
I have been overwhelmed most of this season that God has given me a second chance to impact someone’s life. Sometimes I sit in my car after a game and cry thinking how lucky I am and think about my little nine year-old self who had a heck of a dream to become a volleyball player someday. It’s been a wonderfully hard journey and I wouldn’t take even one second back.
I’ve hesitated writing this because I truly, truly do have utmost respect for all my coaches and I know who they are as people now and know they continue to impact our sport in great ways. Most of what I speak of here is from my formative years between the ages of 9 – 14. Once I was old enough to talk back, I did – and I learned how to take care of myself in most cases. My high school and college coaches were a walk in the park mostly because I had already learned how to take a lot as an athlete.
I am forever grateful for that. I really, really am.
I wrote this mostly because I think it’s important to talk openly about it. If you don’t know why you are doing what you are doing as a coach or what impact it may have in kids life (especially formative years), take a step back and examine it. I never wanted any kid to feel what I felt like after a lashing and when I found myself doing just that, I had to stop. We are the adults and we need to know our limits. I needed to find my limit and I needed time to figure out who I wanted to be as a coach. I think I know now.