When I was about 4 or 5 years old, I had a basketball coach who created a play called “cheeseburger.” If my team heard that word, this was the play: One of us would run to our defensive end of the court, get down on all fours, and start barking!
The rest of the team all totally played into it and acted really surprised! After our dramatics caught the other team off guard, we rushed to the basket on our offensive end to score, usually, an easy layup.
There are many leadership lessons that we can gain through sports — sometimes, unknowingly — and one of the important one to me was this: Competition is more memorable (especially for the parents) when we learn how to have a little bit of fun every now and then.
Now that I am older and feeling pretty nostalgic for those youth sports days, I can see the bigger lessons sports offered. When we are in a position to interact with younger generations, whether as a coach or another role, we have the opportunity to leave lasting impressions on younger people — to demonstrate ways to compete, ways to lead, how to practice and how to enjoy the moments along the way. It is our decision how we choose to model these behaviors. We are the ones calling the plays.
Around the same time, maybe the season after the “cheeseburger” play, I was also working on improving my tee-ball skills. My tee-ball coach took his job pretty seriously. To supplement our regular practice times, he gave us some “homework.” He distributed a sheet to guide us through our summer training. Remember we were maybe 5 or 6 years old. This sheet listed how many throws and successful catches we were to get from specified distances.
My mom was a school teacher, so luckily (for her?) she was at home to ensure I fulfilled the requirements. When she tells me this story, she makes it sound as if it took a majority of the day for me to successfully catch 10 throws from each distance. Apparently, I was more likely to let the ball hit my glove and fall to the ground than I was to keep it in the pocket! Sometimes it would take 20 throws for me to make 10 catches, and then it would be time to move apart a few more feet and begin again. I think our coach’s goal was 100 catches a day (which meant 200 attempts for me), but I was determined to do my homework! And it paid off. At some point in that season, my parents told me I caught my first pop-fly (hallelujah!), and they could not believe it. Without being aware of it at the time, I was learning the importance of intentional and consistent practice.
When thinking back on these summers of practice, I realize they laid down the foundation for setting a goal and implementing small steps along the way to achieve it. As we grow older, we learn it is important not only to set a long-term goal, but also to set attainable short term goals to help us get there. If we are constantly falling short of our goal without mini-wins along the way, it makes it hard to stay consistent in striving for it. For every one of my mom’s throws I caught, I probably dropped two; however, this coach helped show me that being intentional in my practice and remaining patient with my mishaps, could lead to success in the long run.
Perhaps catching that pop fly instilled a little bit of confidence in me, because just two or three years later, I found myself at a Barton College baseball camp with Bulldogs head coach Todd Wilkinson. A couple of weeks ago, I read The Wilson Times article announcing Coach Wilkinson’s new job that is pulling him away from Barton. As I read this, I was, of course, upset for our community to lose such an incredible asset to our local college, but also, I was really thankful for having spent some time with Coach Wilkinson at Barton’s baseball camps.
I did not think of myself as a good baseball or softball player, but at that camp, Coach Wilkinson and I shared motivational talks, and even though I cannot exactly remember what he said, I do remember he told me I could hang with a group of older boys, so he let me move to their group. Even more importantly, I remember walking away from that camp way more excited about my upcoming softball season. Because Coach Wilkinson noticed I looked a little bit out of my comfort zone, he chose to remind me that I did fit in — without being too obvious about it.
Thinking back on my career in athletics on all levels, it seems I got pretty lucky. I had coaches who taught me the importance of fun, the importance of helping those around me feel included and the importance of patience and intentional practice. Most significant of all, my experiences with so many wonderful coaches continue to shape the way I handle day-to-day situations in my young adult life. If we think back to the various ways coaches, teachers or other role models had on us when we were young, we may realize that their impact on us was different from their impact on our teammates. Some of my teammates may have thought the “cheeseburger” play was a chance to practice acting out the best dog they could, and maybe they later continued their acting career. Others may have thought it was absolutely ridiculous and determined they would never coach in such a way. However, that play had the opportunity to influence all of us for decades to come.
When I spent summers playing catch with my parents, I learned how to execute a plan, but maybe my teammates did not have the luxury of having a parent at home to help and they learned how to either ask someone else for help,= or how to throw a ball against a wall in practice. Regardless of our situations, this small practice provided one of us the chance to spend time with a parent, and maybe offered others the chance to learn vulnerability or independence.
Once, my former county league basketball coach decided to let us keep scoring baskets — even though we were up by more than 20 points. This did not usually happen in county basketball. When a parent asked her why she was not telling us to back off, she said, “I am not going to tell them to quit scoring when they practiced hard for this.”
While that may seem a bit cold, that is not how I remembered it. I remember us learning how to win humbly, and how to lose gracefully when we were the ones down by 20-plus points.
Thinking back to my own experiences with coaches is a good reminder for me to not get too caught up in the outcomes of the kids that I coach. Reflecting on these memories reminds me not to worry too much about the scores, the shutouts or how many of them commit to colleges and instead, be accepting of the fact that each practice could impact them differently than I expect.
When we have the privilege to work with young athletes in whatever role we may serve, it is such an opportunity to teach lessons, to be a role model and to be a bright spot in their days. The coolest part of this is that none of that requires a win; it just requires us to show up each day and be open to playing whatever role our athletes (or students, or mentees) need us to play. Maybe years later, they too will look back and realize how important you were.
E.J. Proctor Story, a 2014 graduate of Fike High, was the starting goalkeeper for Duke’s 2015 NCAA runner-up year, 2016 Elite 8 finish and 2017 Final Four finish. Currently the Duke record holder for shutouts and goals against average, she went on to play one season professionally with the Utah Royals F.C. after graduating from Duke. Now back in Wilson, E.J. is assisting with coaching youth soccer players and is completing her Doctor of Physical Therapy degree from Duke.