In November I come up for air from an 11 week full immersion experience. To be fair, I haven’t gone anywhere. I’ve been here all along, living in my house, going to work, doing most of the things I do in my life. It’s just that to the mix I add coaching a high school girls soccer team, and from the middle of August until early November that is the entirety of what I think about. When I’m out for a run, I’m thinking about drills to encourage more aggressive play in and around the 18 yard box. Standing in my kitchen pouring coffee grounds into a filter, I’m planning that day’s pre-game speech. Driving myself home in the dark, I’m taking lessons from today and turning them into practice plans for tomorrow. When I’m lying awake staring at the ceiling, I'm replaying conversations with the girls in my head and hoping I got my parts right. When I’m doing ab work at the end of my morning workout, I’m thinking about ways we can improve our aerial game. And from mid-season on, I’m thinking about how to get us as far into the playoffs as I can and getting ready for the Senior Game and making sure we incorporate penalty kicks into every practice and planning the banquet and still all those other things from earlier in the season too. It’s exhausting and all-consuming and I don’t know how to coach any other way.
There is, without fail, a point in every soccer season in which I suffer from the imposter complex. I know intellectually that I’m good at what I do. But something will happen that will cast all that confidence into the shadows of doubt. It whispers and beckons to me from the dark. I know it’s full of shit, but I follow it anyway. In I go, into the dark corners and I sit there letting it wrap itself around me. I know exactly what is happening. I am completely self aware. And I let it happen anyway. The only one who knows this is happening is my husband. Outwardly I am no different. Outwardly I soldier on. I am positive. I am confident. I get things done. But inside, for a few days anyway, I feel completely responsible for every failure or shortcoming or bad thing that has happened on the team. I struggle with how to respond and how to correct it and help us move forward. It happens every single season, in one way or another. It’s painful and it sucks and I cry and don’t sleep and I flail and I question everything. And it makes me better. Like most painful things which completely suck while they’re happening, I recognize that when it’s over I come out the other side having learned something. I emerge from the experience a stronger, better, smarter version of myself.
This happens with the team too. It’s referred to as the mid-season slump, although I’ve seen it happen at all different points throughout our two months of togetherness. Everything is ducky and we are building and there’s momentum and we are working together and working hard and seeing it pay off. And then we hit a bump in the road or experience some kind of setback or simply just plateau, and things suddenly look different. It’s enough of a seam for things like doubt or self pity or negativity or fatigue and ambivalence to slip through. And then everybody’s job becomes a little bit harder. This is one of the most compelling moments as a coach. When this happens, it’s pretty interesting to witness how different individuals respond. And then to notice how that shapes how we, collectively, as a team, respond. It’s easy to show up and work hard and be positive and have fun when things are going well. But when things get hard, that’s when our true colors show. Those are the moments when people either step up or, well, they don’t.
My husband Tom does Spartan Races. Last winter he attempted the Agoge and found himself faced with some pretty extraordinary challenges out there in the February Vermont woods. He told me about how it was really a contest with himself and about the inner struggles of wanting so badly to just quit but also wanting so badly not to. He told me about how inspiring it was to be with a bunch of bad asses out there in the dark and freezing cold, problem-solving, and pushing themselves harder than they ever knew they could. And he told me about The Shirker. That guy in the group who quietly, almost imperceptibly, did just the bare minimum of what was required. Was he working? Yes. Was he working as hard as the others? Decidedly not. The Shirker did just what was needed and never an ounce more. He took more breaks. He let others shoulder more of the burden of the task while he rested. He took one turn at the hard thing when others doubled up. One could argue that he was the smarter competitor by adopting this strategy: he finished, and Tom did not. Isn't it painful and frustrating to give something everything you've got and still have it not be enough? Yes, it certainly is. But isn't it better to fail knowing you gave it your all as opposed to gliding across the finish line in someone else's tailwind?
But maybe that's not the whole tale. I try to remind myself (and Tom, as he’s sharing his narrative) that we never really know a person’s story. What looks like a mediocre attempt to me might be that person’s absolute greatest effort. I remind my team of this from time to time too, to help us stay positive. Your 100% might look really different from your teammate’s 100%. We are all at different starting points. Maybe The Shirker isn’t really, well, shirking. Maybe he's still developing the resources you already have to dig deep and push even harder. Maybe he’s only still in it because he’s watching your efforts and is inspired by them and is somehow, because of your example, finding a way to continue toiling away. I have long believed that our purpose is to inspire each other and draw inspiration from each other. We do this both on purpose and by accident. You never know how the things that you say or do will ripple out and affect others. We all have different stuff going on beneath the surface. We are all struggling and feeling challenged to some degree or another. Give your pal the benefit of the doubt. Assume she is working as hard as she can right now. Some might say this mindset works not just for the sporting arena, but for being on planet Earth with 7 billion other people too. What if we just choose to believe that everyone is doing the best that they can in every moment, because here's the reality: at some point or another, every single one of us is going to look like some version of The Shirker to someone who does it better than us. Well huh.