As you may know from our Instagram, Andrew & I are coaching a youth flag football team this fall. We have seven, third and fourth graders on our team – all boys, even though girls were welcomed to join none of them did from our community. We had one girl sign up, but then when she saw that no other girls were playing she left. That disappointed both us (especially me being the only female coach out of the six teams), but with that said we have seven very energetic boys that we coach two nights a week with one to two games a week on top of that. In the short time we’ve had them I thought I had them pegged. I thought I knew who the cool one was, who the quiet leader was, who was there just because his parents made him… but I was wrong and too quick to put a label on them.
This week we left one of our last practices with a H E A V Y heart. Practice did not go as planned. The real world snuck in and showed its ugly face and I was not prepared for it.
We usually start our practices with a quick warm up and then go into drills or skills with the kids. We’ve even gotten the parents involved, playing either offense or defense depending on what we are trying to teach the kids that night and they have loved it. I have too. It’s fun to watch them interact and get charged up thinking they can beat the grown ups. But sadly, this practice took a turn when we agreed to scrimmage another team after warm ups.
Both teams met in the middle of the field and while the coaches were trying to figure things out, two kids from the other team instantly starting running after one of ours, tackling him to the ground. We play flag football so no tackling is allowed. I figured it was boys being boys (even though I hate that phrase) and that they had too much excitement and energy so we gave the initial warning and asked them to apologize. That was just the start of things to come.
As we tried to tame 15 kids and put them into their respective spots on each side of the line a boy from the other team threw a football at my back – purposely trying to hurt me (which he totally did BTW because some of these third graders are much stronger than they look). He was trying to show off in front in of his team. Thankfully, his coach saw it right away and marched him over to me and made him apologize. I accepted and moved on – it happened right in front of my team. I wanted to be an example of how you move past things and be the bigger person, even if it hurt.
Not even a minute later, as we were still trying to get them positioned on the line a boy from the other team looked at me and said, “You don’t do anything. You just let your husband do it all.” I just looked at him stunned. He had no idea who I was or what I have done or haven’t done. He’s been on my side of the field for all of two minutes, how would he know? Plus, what gives him the right to talk to an adult like that? So, I asked him to repeat what he said. And with a little more attitude this time he said it loud and clear, again. Trying to keep a calm head on my shoulders, I told him that if he continues to speak like that to any of the coaches that he will not be playing for the rest of night. I may have also given him my best mom stare, too. But, I couldn’t help but feel like I didn’t belong at that moment and that it had something to do with me being a female coach, like I was as good or shouldn’t be there. It was earlier in the season that one of the other coaches labeled me as ‘just a mom’ and failed to even think for one minute that I could be coaching just like him. When I told him I wasn’t a mom (we don’t have kids if you were wondering) and that I am a coach just like him, he seemed stunned. He didn’t apologize, just responded by saying, “You’re not a mom?“
Next thing I know the word, HIKE was yelled and a play was in motion. We did another one and another one only realizing that one of our players now didn’t want to do anything. He didn’t want to play, he just seemed really sad, which was totally out of character for him, because he was the ‘cool one’ after all. My husband called time out and took him aside. He learned that a boy from the other team called him trash and our team trash and that he didn’t want to play anymore. My husband handled the situation by boosting up our player and letting him know he nor anyone on our team was trash. He told him to get a drink and then went to talk to the other coach about it. This is third strike now for this team with me. What else could we be in for?
Before the next play, we huddled up again and tried to give our players a pep talk. You could see that negativity of the other team was starting to effect them. One kid said to me,”You’re not having a very good night, are you?” I replied, “I’m with you guys, of course I’m having a good night!” But then one of my other players (the loud one that never stops joking or playing around) said to me, “It’s okay if you’re sad. We have a lot of problems in my family and it makes me sad, too.” That hit me to my core. I just wanted to give this kid a hug. The real world started to sink in at that moment and our hour of fun where we can forget about everything else came crashing in. I didn’t take it any further with him there, but all of sudden I started to see him differently. I started to see all of them differently. I started to understand why one being called trash, was taken so personally and that it wasn’t just a word anymore.
We ended the game and let the kids play Sharks and Minnows to close out on some fun. As the kids played I talked to the other coach and he let me know that he was certainly challenged by his team and that earlier in the night he was dealing with kids saying racial slurs to one another. He also informed me that the kid who mouthed off to me earlier was in foster care. Again, the real world crept in and these kids were not just kids to me anymore and they weren’t who I thought they were, either. They were all dealing with much bigger issues off the field.
Before our kids leave practice at night we huddle up and we ask them two things – what did you learn and did you have fun. Those have always been our two goals from day one. Thankfully, they all had fun and could repeat all of the defensive plays we taught them that night. I hope they left happy, because I certainly did not. As we walked to the car I started to talk about everything that happened with my husband. He didn’t hear half of it as it was happening – he was too busy running around trying to get them to listen to him. I told him thing after thing that happened and you could see his whole body change. He, too felt crushed. Third graders shouldn’t have to deal with things that they are dealing with, but they are. They should be able to focus on being a kid, because they have the rest of their lives to deal with the adult things.
We felt helpless. My husband sent an email to the parents of our kids and wanted them to know that they might hear about some negative sportsmanship that happened from the other team. We let them know that we addressed it, both from the players and coaches side. We also wanted them to know how much we appreciate their kids and how they reacted to each of the situations and that they didn’t retaliate, but rather told the adults and let us handle it. We wanted them know how grateful we were for the group of kids that we had and to let them know it, too. I had hoped that email would have helped me to feel better, but it didn’t.
When we first started this I thought it was just going to be a fun thing to do with Andrew. And it really has been, but sadly there are still the ‘real world’ things that we are dealing with that don’t leave us just because we are playing a game. I’ve never been the type of person who thinks that we should shield our kids from the bad, ugly, hurtful or negative things in life, because we can learn from everything that happens to us, but that certainly doesn’t make it any easier – especially when you are dealing with it first hand.
What I have realized though is that when I do have these kids in our care it will be our goal every time to make sure that they can just be kids. And that their only job in that time is to have fun and learn. They all have too many other things to worry about off the field.
And what I have been reminded of (again and again as an adult) is to not judge a book by its cover. We all have things that we are going through, some hide it better than others, so it never hurts to lead with a smile, say hello or offer a kind gesture. Everybody has something. It doesn’t matter what age you are.