When your career won-loss record is somewhere around thirty games below the break even mark you can’t help but question your methods. At what point does the adjective failing become the noun failure? As coaches and players, we are taught that the only true failure is not getting back up and trying again. Those same astronomical odds to finish the season with a win will be in place next year.
Dean Smith, legendary basketball coach at North Carolina said, “If you make winning games a life or death proposition, you going to have problems. For one thing you’ll be dead a lot.” The end of every season feels a little bit like death. And as coach you are responsible to deliver the eulogy on the spot. Like a funeral, re-capping a life or a season in a condensed time frame is challenging and often emotional. And when that is over as a coach the introspection begins.
Back in November I boarded a bus to Spooner with 20 girls who nine months ago were opponents, for a season opening weekend tradition I call “training camp.” I have done it every year, with every team. With questionnaires in hand and severe doubt in their minds the process of learning about each other began. Like a scene from “Remember the Titans” every activity throughout the weekend was designed to learn about their new teammates. The segregation was as obvious as the obstacles they faced. With the bulk of our players from super-sized SPASH and small-town Waupaca the cultural divide was wide as the school enrollments. It appeared to be a daunting task.
Believing that building team unity would be our biggest challenge I left no doubt about its importance and branded our team as the “sisterhood” and inked it to their jerseys like a tattoo they couldn’t escape. More quickly than I could have imagined this group began buying into the family concept. Early season success helped embolden the “sisterhood.”
Along the way this old head coach, still searching to fill his empty nest at home, began to fall in love with his team as if they were his own daughters. Off the ice I tried to create a culture of respect for each other and preached the importance of being a great teammate. After games we filled each other’s buckets with post-game diaries that praised teammates who were often out of the spotlight. On the ice I continually challenged them to be “mean girls” and for many that proved to be their most difficult assignment.
Despite having a handful of girls that would find only limited ice on our modest roster, including two seniors, not one walked away and seldom did I even hear a complaint from them. They were indeed great teammates, a tribute to the players and their parents who have tremendous influence on whether or not they accept their limited ice time. Not once did I get the cold shoulder or irate email from a parent following a game. Ironically the more I consider and treat parents as allies, the more support I seem to gain from them.
At the beginning of the year I promised my parents that I would treat their daughters as if they were my own daughters. To fulfill that promise it meant no screaming, yelling or calling them out in front of their teammates. It required creating a safe environment where the avalanche of communication contained more pebbles than boulders. It meant working as hard at cultivating their love for the game as it did demanding they play the game within our structure. It meant balancing having fun and making the game enjoyable with the discipline needed to be a responsible player.
Believing in nurturing a passion for the game through the fun of the game is a concept that sometimes gets lost when winning becomes the overriding concern. It is a balancing act every coach must at least consider. Our actions don’t always mesh with our words when it comes to the purpose of high school athletics. The trip to the state tournament has become the new measuring stick of success and every school now wants the “competitive balance” adjusted to suit their needs. ‘Life isn’t fair’ is no longer an acceptable answer.
At our Parent’s Dinner I listened as our eight seniors emptied their own emotional gas tanks and filled the tanks of their sisters. Almost all revisited the extreme skepticism they held in November that this new team could succeed. For our parents it was the first year that they didn’t have to shuffle across the ice as only the Zamboni driver applauded them on Parent’s Night. Thank you, Mike Younggren, for boldly allowing me to replace Parent Night, with a much more meaningful parent dinner many years ago.
Senior Kylie Hiddemen offered this definition of our newly created hockey family, “The sisterhood isn’t perfect, no family is, but what makes us unique is we have the ability to set everything aside and have each other’s backs no matter what, because that is what sisters do.”
Throughout the season I witnessed acts that continually validated the sisters they had become and the adopted daughters I was so proud to coach. They endured through the thousands of miles they collectively traveled to four different rinks sometimes all in the same week. They stood proud in the face of the prejudice that came with being labeled the new super co-op. As tough roster decisions were made they expressed true happiness for each other as they battled back and forth for precious ice time. Not even a four game losing streak in February would loosen their bond. Then, with a playoff game looming one of our captains came to me more concerned about a young teammate who was not dressing than the opponent at hand. And on Saturday with our season on the line I watched one of our top players fight through pain that I swear I could feel myself and lay it all on the line for her teammates. I have coached boys for many years, but the two toughest players I have ever been around have both been girls.
When that abrupt end to your season comes as a coach you always wonder if you pushed the right buttons. For all the teams but one, the scoreboard will provide the easy answer, no you didn’t. The right answer, however, lies in the future when the lessons they learned will serve them in their everyday life. The cruelty is that the end of each season also marks the ends of your hockey family and it turns out an empty rink is a lot like an empty nest. I miss them already.
We won’t win a championship this year, but in my mind this team is a champion of a different kind, because they did what everyone, including themselves thought couldn’t be done. And while there will be no banner to hang, they have achieved something that is equally elusive and difficult to obtain.
They became a team, a family, sisters and for a few short months, my daughters.
I could not be prouder.
Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher & hockey coach in Wausau, WI. You can contact him at email@example.com