Saturday’s theme is all about keeping things simple. We’ll call this one a-simple-act-of-emotional-restraint-right-before-you-are-going-to-blow-a-fuse.
Last season I found myself in a challenging predicament, not only as a coach who was being heckled, but as the commissioner and executive director of our gothambasketball.org league.
It was the first weekend of the season when I was coaching a team of fourth grade boys in a small gym on the upper west side of Manhattan. The first week of team play, there was confusion about the free throw line. I stepped on to the court to show the ref and the kids where the modified rule is for the division, which was to benefit the players, fans and coaches.
“Get off the floor, Coach,” a parent yelled at me.
I took a deep breath. I kept my wits and forgave the faceless soul, thinking they don’t know that I spend seven days a week running a league for 80 teams and oversee the rules and behavior of every team in the league. Even though this parent was with one of the paying teams (go figure), I also raise about $30K per year to support other teams that cannot afford to pay, and cover the increasing overhead associated with youth sports.
The next weekend, as I was calling out instructions to my players during a free throw being shot by the other team, a grandfather started to shush me. I let it go the first few times, but he kept shushing. On the third time, knowing that I had limited time outs and was simply telling my kids the next play, I yelled firmly, “This isn’t tennis.”
Apparently it’s not acceptable to some people to stand up for yourself, even if you are a former college and pro player who actually knows the rules and wants her kids to know them, too.
The following weekend, during a tight game, the fun continued.
I heard a voice yell at me, “Get off the floor, Coach.”
The first thing I did was look down. I was on the floor by a small step, but in no way obstructing the game. I then stopped and said, “Wait, am I being heckled by an 11-year-old on the other team?”
Making matters more challenging is that I had let this team play down to help them get a win or at least get in a close game.
I let it go and kept coaching.
Until I heard it again.
I went immediately toward the dads who were coaching. I stopped at the table and said to one dad, “If you don’t get that kid to watch his mouth, then get his parents over here to do it. And if you and his parents can’t do it, I will.”
Not exactly the picture of composure.
I have no idea which kid on the bench said it. I just know that every bench warmer was afraid to look at me. All I could think of is that my parents would have dragged my ass down to the street if I’d ever acted that way toward an adult. Somebody clearly taught the kid that it was okay. It was time for his teachers to correct their mistake on the spot.
Within 30 seconds, I saw two dads coming over to the bench, looking more afraid of me than of delivering any message about rude behavior.
Not a peep from the bench for the rest of the game.
Was it wrong for me to snap on the one kid who didn’t know the weekly battles I’d been through with parents and kids in this boys 10 and under age division?
Maybe. Maybe the dad coaches didn’t hear the kid scream twice the same comment as clear as day. If they had, maybe they would have done something before I did.
Was it wrong the year before when I told a parent to take a seat or he’d be asked out of the gym? This was after he walked across the floor and blind-sided the ref at half-court, startling the ref turned around, almost to the point that you wouldn’t have blamed the ref if he raised his arms in a fighting stance.
The bully of a parent glared down at the ref and said he wanted to know why he wasn’t getting position on his calls. I stepped in and said, “It’s a fourth grade game, a small gym and the league approved of only one ref.”
The coach from the other team then piped in that he wasn’t getting any calls and they need to change the rules. This made the dad think he could hang out with the coaches during the entire time out until we changed the rules. “If you don’t go back to your seat,” I said to him, “you’re going to have to leave the gym.”
I continued co-coaching with another male and two male coaches who were screaming just as loud as I was if not louder for the rest of the game. The dad didn’t exactly lay down. His wife didn’t like how I told her husband he could not step on the court. She yelled at me while I was coaching my kids, and called the front office days after to complain, saying, “There’s a crazy, rude woman coaching the orange team.”
Later in the year, there were even bigger problems from the same club. Just as I was raving to parents about how great the behavior is in the league due to our strict rules, I stepped on the floor after a coach dropped one F bomb that I didn’t want to accept I’d heard. Then he dropped a second one at the top of his lungs with his team up 20 points, when he screamed at a 10-year-old, “Get a f-ing rebound!”
Was it wrong for me to walk across the floor and say what I said?
“Coach, if you do that again or get another tech, you’ll be out of the gym and the league for good.”
“Who are you?” he said, voice still raised.
“I run the league and this is my gym.”
“Don’t tell me what to do.”
He was so combative that neither the ref nor I could calm him down.
I turned to our coach and said, “Go get security, please.”
I turned to the kids, on both teams, all of them scared and shocked.
“You did nothing wrong,” I said. “What’s important is for everyone to know the rules and then we’re going to go back to playing.”
Then I looked up at the crowd and said, “I just want everyone to know that we don’t tolerate this type of behavior. If anyone gets two techs, they are out of the league. I just want everyone to be clear of this rule.”
As I walked off the court and the ref got the kids back into action, a parent from the other team said to me, “That’s such bad form.”
“Me?” I said. “Bad form after your coach does what he did?”
The director of the coach who received the tech did not call me. I called the director and said, “Would you like to talk about what happened this past weekend?”
“These things get so overblown,” the director said. “If you just leave it alone, it will go away.”
Needless to say, this club was not the right fit for our league. After chronic rule violations, including bringing in A level players for a C level final game, this club was asked not to return at the end of the season.
So fast-forward to the action last season, when the adults started kicking up the dirt again.
The grandpa is shushing me non-stop.
Based on the looks I’m getting from his daughter and wife, this is no longer a youth basketball game. It’s a personal vendetta for them to put me in my place.
Then I start to feel badly for them because they have no idea who they are messing with.
I take a deep breath.
And I think of Arthur Ashe.
I realized I was not him, not even close, and by no means do I want anyone to post photos on FB that show the striking resemblance between me and Arthur Ashe.
I thought of the famous story of the ball boy who watched in shock, time and time again, as the line judge kept making calls against Arthur Ashe. After one clear hosing by the line judge, the ball boy looked at Ashe and what did Ashe do?
He winked at the ball boy.
He winked and stayed focused on his job: winning the match.
This time I didn’t remind grandpa that this was basketball, not tennis or golf. I didn’t engage in a staring contest with his daughter or wife. I went up to the official on the floor, and quietly and calmly asked him to explain to the crowd that I am allowed to coach while players are on the free throw line.
Grandpa never shushed me again.
So what’s the simple act? Cry to the ref and let him fight your battles? Pipe down on the sidelines and keep it at least one notch lower than the men?
No, it’s to focus on the task at hand.
Upon entering and exiting the gyms, I always say hello to anyone I’m passing in the hallways—guards, refs, parents of my kids, parents of opponents—doesn’t matter.
This year, I’m saying hello as usual, and smiling and shaking the hands of coaches, refs, scorekeepers, even if I know them. I am going to physically walk over to all the players on the sideline, and welcome all the kids before the game. Before they can even think of fearing the unknown – god forbid a society that encourages men and women to coach boys and girls equally – I am going to remind them that we’re here to play with passion and have fun. It’s a game. We are here to give our best effort. That means if I’m asking my kids to play their butts off, then I’m expecting the same of myself as a coach.
Granted I want to make it clear that I am going to say that I am not completely innocent. Do I get into it? Of course. But I’ve never received a technical foul as a coach or player in my over 30 years of playing or coaching.
Over 30 years.
Not one tech.
I will admit that I’m not oblivious to the raised eyebrows on some of the opposing players’ faces during a dead ball or free throw when the look over at me as if to say, “Wow, this woman is not messing around.”
And that’s exactly the way it should be.
I was glad I was not there when a parent yelled at my sister, Meghan, who coaches for us, while she was coaching a group of grade 4 girls.
A parent of one of our sponsored teams voiced his opinion during the game. My sister’s team was playing against the sponsored team, which was comprised of a bunch of girls who were new to hoops, but quite aggressive and beating up on my sister’s team.
“Coach, don’t yell so much,” the parent said. “They’re just babies.”
First, the girls were grades 4-5. They were far from babies. Several of them were tougher than most kids.
Second, the male coach was yelling just as much. And he had every right to do so. It’s a game. It’s loud. Talking in an inside voice doesn’t work during the live action of a basketball game unless you are okay with losing or your dominant team is on auto-pilot.
Meghan, a former college player who received a promotion at her sales corporation while on maternity leave not once, but twice, was yelling basic instructions and asking for more effort, not picking on kids. I am proud to say that Meghan had her Arthur ask moment.
Meghan did not pipe down. She kept focusing on the task at hand, which was to coach that game as hard as she could down to the last second regardless of the score.
Coaches coach. Parents parent. Players play. And if anyone goes over the line, they are called out and expected to step back, settle down and keep the focus on the kids. This includes me. That’s where the mistake lies – instead of making it about me or my sister or who’s yelling louder than whom or who can’t hide their issues – the simple mental trick is to keep the lens on the kids, who just want to enjoy the game.