By Don Powers
March brings warm air, sweetness, a sense of rebirth with hopes and dreams and an energized spirit. In South Mississippi, it brings gnats, mosquitoes, rain, and, sometimes, heat.
But March is also the start of middle and high school track season.
I coached public school athletics for many years during my career as a middle school teacher. And now, as a retiree, I can look back and see that, while our school colors of red and white were the same for all sports, coaching track proved very different from coaching football and soccer. Not only did track and field require a different pace, different strategy, and more conditioning, coaching track, for me, meant stepping completely out of my comfort zone. Because, for the first time in my career, I had to coach girls.
When I first received this assignment, I was less than happy. Having only coached boys up until that season, I thought girls’ sports were less intense and less exciting; that they would hold almost no rewards for me as a coach. But, if you live long enough and are flexible enough, you learn how wrong you can be. My understanding of girls sports was a gross misconception.
What I learned was that girls come to practice every day; girls put out 110 percent in their efforts every day; and girls also cry.
They cry when they succeed, and they cry when they fail. I learned that one has to understand this condition to be successful as a coach; because, once you understand this condition, you are better able to help each individual reach the true objective of athletics: to improve one’s self, be it alone or in the company of other athletes.
My third year as a girls track coach paired me with a very special group of young ladies. We were a small school along the Mississippi Gulf Coast with a small talent pool; but, I believed these girls had the ability to do well and place high in the district meet. Hard practices and making the most of the girls’ talents throughout the meet would give us our best shot.
At each meet that season, we steadily improved as a team and as individuals. More and more, I learned how wrong I had been about girls sports. As I prepared for each event and shifted the girls around looking for the best combinations of talent, grit, and determination, I couldn’t wait to see how they would perform.
As we prepared for the district meet, I reflected on the meets leading up to that point. We were in the middle of the pack, and, for us, this was a great improvement. I could sense the girls were becoming focused on doing well, and their determination inspired me to want to do even more to keep them focused.
I had to put aside what I had learned coaching football. In football, a coach becomes serious and puts on a “game face” as the big game approaches. But, I knew I had to remember that girls have that “condition.” A serious game face wasn’t what they needed. They needed inspiration.
Every day after class and before practice, I pondered on what I could do to inspire these girls while not taking myself so seriously. Then it hit me.
Ribbons! Red and white ribbons.
With my wife’s help, I bought yards of red and white ribbon and cut pieces at the right angle and length. All that was left was to figure out how to present them to the girls.
On the day of the district meet, we arrived a little early to the field. I pulled all the girls aside and told them I had a gift for each of them. I told them that, win, lose, or draw, I was proud of each of them and was pleased at how much each of them had improved through the season.
Then I pulled out the bag of ribbons. The girls went silent.
I was afraid I had made a big mistake, but I continued with my speech anyway. I said the only thing I wanted from them in return for these gifts was to see every ribbon flying straight out behind each girl as she competed.
Every girl seemed to pull a hair brush from out of nowhere and began brushing her hair and tying her ribbon in place, but they still all remained silent. If I had made a mistake, it was too late now.
The meet began, and every single member of my team rewarded me with a flying ribbon. Everyone came off the field having given everything they had. They cried, and I cried; and then the meet was over.
We placed second overall. A total victory? By some standards, no. But by what these girls accomplished, a resounding yes!
For years after this meet, I bought the ribbons for every team. I had fun, and the girls had fun. And it was our tradition.
Are girls’ sports intense and exciting and rewarding? You betcha.
Who da thunk it?