The fifth-grade girls looked back at me from the bench, breathless and beaten.
They’d just finished their seventh quarter of basketball in the last two hours. The first game was a heart-breaking two-point loss to a rival. Now they were losing by 18 points going into the fourth quarter against a new team in our league. I didn’t know quite what to tell them as I knelt down.
“Let’s win the fourth quarter,” I told them. “I don’t care about the other three quarters. They’re in the past. Don’t worry about the score. There’s nothing we can do about that now. What we can do is do our best and win the quarter. Let’s go out there and have some fun.”
They popped up with a little pep in their step and returned to the floor. I commented to my assistant coach, “I hope that’s what they needed to hear.”
To even be in that position, asked to lift the spirits of a team of 10- and 11-year-olds, is pretty ludicrous. You can ask any of the people who work with me at the newspaper: Pep talks aren’t my strength.
I’m better at being critical, tearing apart little details in an effort to make things better. I can see flaws and try to correct them. My preferred tone is monotone, which helps on the delivery when you’re a sarcastic person.
About a month ago, I went to the parents’ meeting for our fifth-grader’s team. That’s when I learned they didn’t have a coach. That’s when I realized I had to step in to fill that void.
I’ve coached other sports before, but my strengths are in football and softball. I could at least compete in those sports.
Basketball was different. While I love the game, my abilities never progressed much past the fifth grade. On the first day of practice, I joked with the girls I was the perfect coach for them, since I was already at their level. I try to be silly for them, as I want them to have fun and build a love of basketball.
Teaching nuts and bolts of basketball is different, though, from the issue they faced Saturday morning. It wasn’t about setting screens, rolling to the basket or boxing out for a rebound. It was about life.
We’ve all known people who just gave up. They got near the end of something, and they stopped caring. They knew they could put in minimal effort, and people would forgive their sorry efforts in a losing cause.
I didn’t want them to fall into that trap in life. I didn’t want to see our girls surrender. I wanted them to learn about resilience.
I coached them as well as I know how in that final quarter of a blowout. They executed as well as they had all day. They ran hard, set good screens and played solid defense.
When the horn sounded, we still lost the game. More importantly, we won the quarter by one. Afterward, I talked to them about how proud I was of their resilience, that they never gave up.
That’s a lesson I hope they’ll take with them to the next game and throughout their lives.