Throughout my youth, I loved playing all kinds of games. Back then, the thrill of winning—no, more than that—crushing my opponent to a pulp and dancing on the ashes of their loss was my sole goal in every competition I entered. Whether it be a simple game of hide-and-go-seek or some other sport, winning was all that mattered. My mother, who had the misfortune of coaching some of my softball teams, always told me I wasn’t much fun to play with. Well, if my teammates would have quit screwing up, I would have stopped yelling.
A couple of years ago, I was asked to coach a group of young girls through their basketball and then volleyball seasons. These being church sponsored teams, the girls came with varying abilities and experience. From girls who played on the high school teams to ones who’d never really held a ball. When I told my mother that I had accepted the position she simply said, “Dear, do you think that’s a good idea?” Based on my past track record, I understood her concern, so I set up rules for myself to ensure my crazy competitive side would stay in check.
In basketball, every girl played the same amount of time. Even the dancer, who did split leaps across the mid-court line. Amazingly enough, we not only won a few games. We entered the final tournament undefeated.
During the championship game, the gym buzzed with excitement. We were ahead— barely—and with only a few minutes left on the clock. I had a couple of “ringers” on my team, two girls who played basketball for the high school, but they had already played their allotted minutes. The mother of the dancer, who was still split leaping across the floor, pulled me aside and said, “Pull my daughter out, so we can win.” As tempting as those words were, (we were playing a team of cocky jerks that needed crushing), I clung to my original rule—every girl would play. It was one of the most satisfying experiences of my life. And not just because we won, but because we did it without me succumbing to the competitive monster inside that wanted to win no matter the cost.
When volleyball rolled around, I still had my two “ringers”, true athletes who skills were just as strong as they had been in basketball. Unfortunately, the final tournament, held on a Saturday, conflicted with many high school activities. Of the five girls who were able to come I had one ringer, one senior, two newbies (their first year playing), and one “normally, no one lets me play.” I figured we’d be going home early. To the shock of team after team, my little band of five, walloped their way into the semi-finals. But no one was more proud than me. And not because we were winning. Those girls showed me what true teamwork looked like. The ringer and the senior could have run around the court taking every volley possible, but they didn’t. They cheered and encouraged the other three through every missed serve, dropped ball, until something amazing happened. Their desire to play made up for the skills they lacked. Suddenly I had newbies lunging across the floor to pick up digs, or doing their best to set up a spike for the ringer. It was incredible. And even though we eventually lost that semi-final game. I drove home feeling like I’d won.
After seeing the power positive encouragement had on those girls, I wish I could go back in time. I’m sure my teammates would have done a little better If I had yelled a little less.