Bobbi Moran, sports information director and head field hockey coach, writes about the differences between coaching a varsity team and coaching at the III level.
I readily admit that the best part of my day often takes place after 3:20 p.m. Classes are over for the day, and it is time for interscholastic sports.
In the fall I spend my time with the varsity field hockey team, a group of student athletes, many of whom aspire to play at the collegiate level. Our training sessions are grueling, and each day the girls battle for a starting position in the next game. I tell them that it is their responsibility to make their teammate stronger. If they don’t push their teammate, challenge her, encourage her, who will? Choate? Andover? Hotchkiss? When a 50/50 ball (loose ball) is out there on the field, do you think the player from Taft is going to say, “Oh I got the last one. This time it’s your turn. Go ahead and take it.” Of course not! So if you don’t push your teammate to fight for what she deserves out there, how are we as a team going to get any better?
This mindset works well with athletes who love to compete, athletes who thrive under pressure, athletes who look into the eyes of the teammates on their left and right when it is time to run sprints at the end of practice and think, “I am going to beat you and there is nothing you can do about it.” So it is only natural that when fall turns to winter and winter turns to spring, I once again get excited as 3:20 rolls around, and I get the chance to pick up my lacrosse stick and head, this time, to the girls III field.
I have been chided by many of my friends and colleagues, who know me as a very competitive person, about coaching girls III. “Seriously? You coach III? It must make you crazy!” But the honest truth is, I just love to be with the kids, and I love to coach them. I love the look on a student athlete’s face when she does something for the first time that she never thought she could do. I love believing in them when they really don’t have faith enough to believe in themselves. I treat my III team the same way I treat my varsity team, and I think (or hope) they appreciate it. I expect the very best, and so far they have not disappointed me with their attitude. Have we won all our games? Not even close. In fact, we are yet to get a “W” this season, but every day we improve, every day we learn something, every day, I see progress and that I see as a “W”.
There are many ways that I as a coach define success, and most of them have nothing to do with the final score. For us coaches, a win in a game where your team didn’t give their best and just happened to be “better” than their opponent actually doesn’t feel like a win at all. And then there are those games where the score doesn’t adequately convey the effort or the progress your team made while competing. Those are the games that I consider a “W,” and in that sense my III team has a winning record this season.
Measuring success is about goal-setting. Too often we look at the final score of a game to measure a team’s success, but a good coach knows that there is so much more that comes into play. I tell my III team, as I tell my varsity team, to set measurable goals each day and in each game. It is my hope that my players understand this as an important life skill and eventually learn to incorporate it into their daily lives.
Respect for oneself and one's opponent doesn’t change based on your jersey or your sport level, and what I love most about coaching, especially coaching young women, is that they learn to appreciate their own gifts while encouraging others, thereby raising the level of play for everyone. Being a part of a team where student athletes must place the needs of others and the “whole” above their own and at the forefront of what we are trying to accomplish is a priority for me as a coach and mentor.
So what is it really like to go from varsity to III in the same year as a coach? In a lot of ways, it is not as big a stretch as people assume. I suppose I would liken it to going from an advanced class to a regular-level class. The pace is what changes most. On a varsity team, everything is faster, the players, the competition, the speed of the game, and even the practice plans move quicker. The athletes are typically physically stronger, more agile and accustomed to various coaching styles. Varsity athletes often are multi-sport athletes. Very few varsity sports claim student athletes who have grown up playing strictly one sport. For many student athletes, playing on a III team is their first experience with a sport at an interscholastic level.
Of course there are still huge differences in skill level and how the girls see themselves as student athletes. I am not denying that, and understanding and appreciating it is a part of my job as a coach. When one of my III players comes to me saying she cannot practice because she had chicken wings for lunch and they were “spicy,” I have to laugh to myself and reign in my competitive desire to tell her to toughen up, knowing that just six months earlier a varsity athlete walked to the track scarfing down a burger and fries right before a practice that started with a timed mile and told me she was hungry and needed the food.
They call it a game because it is supposed to be fun. If you are not having fun, then something is wrong. Every day at 3:20 p.m. I am excited because I am about to have a lot of fun with a great group of kids who are going to learn something about themselves that will hopefully last a lifetime. Whether they play in college or not, participating in interscholastic athletics has intangible benefits that help to shape and mold one’s character. It is my hope that when my athletes take their leave of the Island, they look back on their experience on my team as one of the best parts of their days here. Then I know I have truly done my job well.