Coach of the Day

One Sunday evening in September, I received an email from one of the captains of the varsity field hockey team inviting me to be the “Coach of the Day” at their next home game. I had no idea that the team had a practice of doing this, nor did I know what being “Coach of the Day” would entail. But I accepted the invitation with pleasure and regardless of the fact that I had a serious conflict on my calendar. 

I played field hockey myself from 4th through 12th grades, and always enjoyed it. I think my affection for it came from being part of a team and being outside on lovely fall afternoons. In fact, when I went to boarding school in 10th grade, one of the only goals I set for myself was to make the varsity field hockey team. At that point, though, I wasn’t very good, and quite honestly, I never put in the effort necessary to improve. Senior year, I finally made it — goal achieved! However, after just a few weeks, the coach — whom I loved — cut me back to junior varsity. I was humiliated. 

My decidedly mediocre career did not exactly prepare me to coach field hockey. Moreover, the rules have changed drastically in the last 40-plus years. Add to all this that, besides helping supervise afternoon soccer during Andover Summer Session — which definitely doesn’t count — I have never coached a day in my life. But no matter. I had assumed that the captains were not looking for coaching experience when they invited me to be their “Coach of the Day,” and that all I really  needed to do was be a supportive presence on the sideline. 

That’s what I believed until I talked to our Upper School Director, a very experienced swim coach, on the day of the game. When I told him that I would be coaching, he advised me that I would need to give a pep talk both before the game and at half-time. I was completely unprepared for any of that, so I contacted the head field hockey coach for clarification. I didn’t have to do the pregame pep talk, she explained, but some inspiration at halftime might be in order. Perhaps I could share a favorite quotation? So between meetings, I did a quick web search and found a few appropriate quotations that could be used whether they were winning or losing on my watch, my anxiety rising. 

Along the Sideline

The afternoon of the game, I changed into shorts, sneakers, a Holton hat, and T-shirt, and headed to the field. It was a beautiful afternoon and the team was ready to take on Potomac. I wished the girls good luck, and they took the field. They played well in the beginning of the first half, dominating the play and scoring two goals. Then they started to slack. At halftime, the coaches pushed them to pick up their game and warned them of the old adage that a two-goal lead is always the most dangerous.  

When the coach asked if I wanted to add anything, I told them I observed their diminished energy and urged them to give it their all as they headed into the second half. I was prepared with a quotation, “Believe you can and you’re halfway there” from Theodore Roosevelt, but it felt forced under the circumstances, so I didn’t use it. The team played better in the second half, but still not as well as they had earlier in the game. Nonetheless, they held onto their dangerous 2-0 lead and managed to expand it with a third goal, winning decisively.  

Throughout the game, I cheered enthusiastically and periodically encouraged the girls on the bench to raise their voices. At the end of the game, the team manager approached me about doing something about the mosquitos plaguing those sitting at the edge of the woods. I expressed sympathy, told her to send me some solutions, and promised to see what I could do.  

So those were my contributions: cheering, a little encouragement, and insect management support. As for coaching, I didn’t. 

Seeing the Whole Field

Indeed, I gained much more than I gave. Observing the coaches at work, I came away with a greater appreciation for how hard coaching is. Throughout the 90-minute game, they were intensely focused, constantly cheering, exhorting, and directing — “get back,” “move up,” etc. They surveyed the entire field and all 11 players — watching how they interacted with each other; how they passed and took free shots; how they commanded or didn’t command space; how they covered players from the other team. They moved players around to make play more effective. They called different corner plays in an effort to outwit the opposition. They decided when to sub a player and talked with each girl individually, both encouraging and directing her.   

When one of the best players came off the field and, clearly frustrated, said to the head coach, “You are contradicting yourself in what you are telling me to do,” the coach calmly said, “I understand why you feel that way, but I’m not contradicting myself; it depends on whether you’re on defense or offense.” Then she drew a diagram to demonstrate what she meant. During the game, the coaches thought about every girl, her strengths, her weaknesses, what she could learn, and how she could contribute to the game. It seemed like directing a symphony (not that I have done that, either) — far more complex and personal than teaching a class.

Early in my career, I heard Ted Sizer, the educational reformer and my high school headmaster, observe that teachers should behave like coaches. That afternoon was the first time I really understood what he meant. The best teachers take the time coaches take with every player to reinforce good play and to provide direct, actionable, specific feedback, all at a very personal level with the goal of growing each girl into the best student she can be. 

In the postgame talk, the coaches encouraged the girls to remember what they had done right and to hold onto the good feeling of winning. I know I did, and I’ve continued to mull over and treasure that experience since.