I am on my way to Fort Myers for spring break, currently in the air over the Carolinas, I would guess. It will be one of the last of many journeys -- both great and small -- that I have taken over the past two decades to watch my daughters play softball. It is hard to believe that this spring season, which looks promising for this year's team, may be the last time I enjoy this particular parenting experience.
My younger daughter is the captain of a struggling and unsung Division III softball team. She plays catcher, a new position she picked up last year when the previous year's catcher graduated and it looked like there would be a hole in the lineup. Nobody on this team has a scholarship to play softball, which is the rule for Division III. There are no prima donnas and lots of good friends; the camaraderie, in constrast to the win-loss record, is remarkable. One player just got off her crutches; another has a torn ACL and is going to spring training just to be with the team. The coach is a diminutive young woman with a big heart and great skills in working with college girls. This is her first year with this team and the players love her and rave about the spirit she brings. If any coach can get this team to the post season, she can. I am glad my daughter's last season is with a great coach, for this season will be remembered. That many coaches over the years have not been great is an understatement that too many parents would agree with.
I was my daughter's first coach, a position I took reluctantly when she was in first grade sixteen years ago. The rules for the town softball team excluded first graders unless a parent was coaching. My older daughter, a third grader, was playing for the first time, and I wanted them to play together, so I agreed to coach. I anticipated that the experience would be draining and unpleasant, dealing with parents and their unrealistic assessments of their daughters' hitting/pitching/catching abilities. It was a dramatic miscalculation.
I loved coaching those girls. The many hours I spent on the field with them are the happiest parenting memories I have. In my mind's eye I can still see those tiny ballplayers fearfully swinging at pitches with their eyes closed. Many of them jumped backwards as they swung, their ubiquitous ponytails waving through holes in the back of their helmets.
In this beginning league the coaches pitched to their own players, and I worked hard to hit their bats with the ball, for they had no hope of hitting the ball with their bats. I got very good at hitting their bats, though, and, with much praise at every small success, they slowly came to believe that they could hit the ball. They stopped closing their eyes and leaping backwards from the pitch. They made contact and then stood motionless, staring in rapt attention at a ball they had just launched, while their teammates encouraged them to run to first base. Now they swing at much faster pitches thrown by pitchers who are trying to make it hard to hit the ball. And they know to run to first.
Learning softball is hard. The basic action of the sport, striking a pitched ball with a tiny bat, takes a long time to learn. It's not like soccer, where a toddler can perform the basic action shortly after they learn to walk. I discovered that I had infinite patience with my young players; I was never even tempted to yell at them for their many mistakes repeated ad infinitum. I discovered instead the joy of sharing their early tentative successes and making them feel like they had done something truly grand. I recall my little third baseman catching her first pop fly. She turned her head and closed her eyes, but she had gotten into position and made the play. I made her feel like she had done something heroic. I said nothing about the fact that she forgot to step on third base and make a double play. The timid batter at the bottom of the order with the 000 batting average would finally make contact and get thrown out by 10 feet, but I assured her that she had done something grand and getting thrown out was of no consequence.
By the end of that first season, I was in love with coaching. There was something gloriously liberating about the softball field and the many young lives on it. I became friends with the dedicated parents who came faithfully on cold New England spring evenings to cheer on their children. I found coaching so absorbing that all the complexities of my busy professional life simply vanished when I stepped onto the diamond, clipboard in hand.
The final season of my childrens' sports career begins tomorrow. I am flying to Ft. Myers to enjoy it. I plan to ask the coach if I can hit some fly balls to the girls. I hope she lets me.