By Benito Vila
A few weeks ago the Pierson seventh grade girls’ basketball team lost its debut by one point in double overtime. The kids on the team and their parents stopped me around town the day or two afterwards to tell me what a great game it was.
I enjoyed hearing their joyous re-telling of the action and their desire not to let the next one get away. When I saw the team’s coach, Jonathan Tortorella, in a meeting at Pierson I congratulated him. Incredibly, that prompted someone who should know better to say, “Why are you congratulating him? They lost.”
I was so flummoxed to hear this coming from an educator, that I ignored the statement entirely. But now with varsity softball and baseball about to open their seasons, and the younger set soon to take the field in Little League, I think it’s important to explain why the coach deserves the praise and to share a few sideline-earned insights into success in sports.
It’s not easy to get teams to buy into the notion of playing as a unit. There’s always someone who thinks they’re better than everyone else. While that may be true, no one wins a team sport alone.
I tell kids on the teams I coach that it is their responsibility to make each and every player on the team better. I see it as my responsibility to make that possible. It’s gratifying when this mutual commitment creates a sense of success, for the individual and the team, each and every practice.
Seeing that happen is significant for both a coach and their players. Everyone working together is a wonderful thing to be a part of; it defeats the drudgery of drills and allows the action to begin to look nearly instinctive, the execution becoming crisp and effective.
That’s no small feat, for all sports are learned behaviors. Having acumen for accomplishing what’s needed to get the team a win comes only from making a consistent and caring commitment.
In youth and school sports, it’s exciting when the kids take a stake in their success. It’s even better when the parents buy into a team’s success, too. When that happens, the late arrivals and missed practices cease and kids start showing up early, eager to work on improving. That extra practice becomes no big deal; it becomes a priority, something everyone wants to make time for because the experience is so enriching, win or lose.
And that’s what Coach Tortorella did and why he deserves high praise. He’s inspired passion in his players and their parents and now he has them all working together to make their season something special.
His team has won all but one of its other contests so far, but that’s not what’s making their season; instead, it’s everyone making the commitment to one another: coach to kid, kid to kid, parent to kid, parent to coach, kid to school. I could go on.
Writing about all this reminds me of a conversation I had at a cocktail party years ago. A parent was convinced that there are only two kinds of coaches: those that coach to win and those that let everyone play. I identified with neither and suggested there is another animal: the coach that coaches to teach.
That’s the coach who creates insights into the game, passes along life-lessons through the game and gets everyone working together, regardless of their roles or their playing time. That’s the coach kids want to play for. That’s the coach that earns results that last beyond wins and losses. That’s the coach kids remember; they create a passion for doing things well; they appeal as much to the heart as the mind, as much to working to be winners as winning.
Pierson has several of those types of coaches and our community has many more in various youth sports and travel-leagues. We’re lucky that way, having intelligent and knowledgeable people teach young people kinship, competition and commitment that carry on beyond the outcome of any single event.
I’ve learned that with winning comes responsibility: you do that and everyone wants to beat you; it requires even more team-mindedness, more work, more commitment. I find that coaches and teams that consistently take on that challenge to be more satisfied and more secure in and of themselves; they know they’ve done their work.
I’ve always felt that losses teach more than wins, but few seem to believe me. The majority look for moments in a contest that caused things to go the other way; they look for scapegoats; they look to place blame.
Whether I’m coaching or playing, I prefer see what I have to do differently, what I did to fall short. As a coach, I believe my teams lose because I didn’t prepare them properly, but that’s a topic for another day.