I was constantly bowled over by the strength of the kids I coached, and I don’t mean in the physical sense. Children have an internal, gut-level strength that we adults do not give them enough credit for, and as a coach I was often privileged to see this in action. The following is a true story, and as usual, names have been changed.
A dozen or so years ago, I was head coach of a summer league team, and part of what we would do at the first practice after a meet was hand out ribbons. You got a ribbon for down to 6th place, I think, and anything else got a participation ribbon; the only kids who didn’t get the coveted ribbon were the ones who had disqualified in the event. I had finished handing everything out and the kids were all trickling away, when one little girl approached me. She was ten or eleven at the time, and had a VERY concerned look on her face.
“Coach, I think there was a mistake.”
“Oh yeah, Mary? What’s that?”
“Well, I dropped eleven seconds off my breaststroke time, and I know I beat some other girls, but I didn’t get a ribbon.”
My heart sank. I was afraid this one was coming.
“Mary, you got DQ’d.”
“Well, you use that nose plug when you swim, and I know you like it to keep the water out of your nose, but when you dove in and came up, you reached up and adjusted it which is considered ‘breaking stroke’, so you got disqualified. And that means it’s like the swim never happened, so you don’t get to keep that faster time either.”
Silence, and a concerned frown.
“How do I fix that?”
So I explained the technique for blowing air to keep water out of your nose, and assured her we would work on it in practice. I wasn’t terribly worried about it, things like this happen all the time in summer league swimming, and I knew it would resolve over the summer. To me, this was not a big deal.
Fast forward to our next swim meet, less than a week later. The breaststroke event came up, and I noticed Mary behind the blocks, no nose plug in sight. I nudged my assistant coach, and we watched to see how Mary would do without it. She swam fast, and “legally” (no DQ), and dropped 12 seconds off that previous best time! We were ecstatic and cheering, when her mom approached.
“I want to tell you something,” she said, “even though Mary asked me not to. I think you need to know. Mary had me bring her to the pool every day, twice a day, so she could practice not using the nose plug. She didn’t want to DQ again, and have the swim be like it never happened.”
I was floored. What to me was “no big deal” was a huge deal to Mary. In less than a week, Mary had taken it on herself to let go of something she thought she needed, something that probably made her less fearful in the water, and had succeeded. The kind of strength and determination it takes to not only fix a technique detail, but overcome the emotional attachment to a crutch, is something rare to see.
Mary opened my eyes to the strength that children possess, and in fact, I have seen this kind of fortitude far more in children than in adults. I have been honored time and again with the opportunity to share in that journey with a young person, and witness their release of fear, triumph over challenge, and victory over their own insecurity. They are brave in a way I sometimes think adults have forgotten how to be.
My goal for this year has been to rediscover how to be brave. I left coaching, and now I will return in a different capacity, with a new team. Both of these were acts of bravery, and in doing these things I hope I honor the numerous kids over the years who have taught me so much.