The parents surrounded me. The final basketball practice had just ended, a scrimmage between the parents and players.
“You know, we’re playing the team that beat us the first game of the season. They’re undefeated.” I’m aware, I think to myself. But is that what I’ve coached your kids all season?
“We should’ve won,” one of them says. “They had one player hit like five threes at the end of the game. We were killing them.”
“Our defense can definitely shut them down,” says another, head bobbing.
I smile, numbly (and dumbly). What am I going to say? Should I tell them how we talk in the team huddle about not worrying about the scoreboard, about how we talk about playing together and doing our best? Should I tell them I have a “no celebration” rule, and that I tell our kids weekly that someday, they’ll be on the receiving end of a blowout?
Fast forward to game day, and I’ve received a few absentee notices. But we still have six players, enough for a full team plus one substitute. We talk about looking for each other, playing our best defense, Still, I know we’re in trouble: one player tells me his dad told him to shadow another team’s ‘best’ player wherever he goes… even though we play a 2-3 zone. [He’s the same dad heard telling his son to ‘throw an elbow’ if anyone gives him a hard time.] After another one of my players picks up his third foul, I hear his dad tell him to “keep swinging.”
Did I mention we were 7-1 on the season heading into the last game, outscoring opponents by an average of ten?
Have I mentioned that all the players are under eight years old?
At halftime, losing by two, I gather the kids, who are completely gassed, into the huddle. They’ve played hard, but they’re used to having a near line-change, not one sub for all five positions. They’re kids, they’ve played hard, and they’re spent. They’ve done everything I’ve asked of them.
I huddle them up and tell them, “Look, guys, this is the most fun I’ve had coaching in ten seasons. I’m proud of your hard work, the way you look for each other, and the way you play defense. Remember, it’s doing your best that’s important. Who’s ready for one last half of basketball this year?”
The kids charge onto the court like rhinos, but it’s pretty clear they’ve given their best on the floor. One player tries going one-on-five three possessions in a row, clanging it off the rim; another demands that he get to dribble the ball down the floor, bouncing it off his foot on several, successive possessions. With a minute left on the clock, and down six, the refs call a timeout.
I gather my guys into the huddle. “We’re about to lose,” I said. “But do you remember what I said at halftime?”
Faces downcast, probably because of the way they’ve heard their parents talk about the season. I finally get them to look me in the eye, and then the kid that never spoke all season, says, “You said you’re proud of us!”
“That’s right,” I said. “It doesn’t matter that we’ll lose – I’m still proud of you guys and how hard you played.”
I really do hate to lose. I’m not going to lie. I probably hate losing more than I love winning. The losing just eats at me; it always has. That pit in my stomach still hasn’t completely gone away as I write this. I wanted to win. I wanted it for them.
But. There’s that but. Someday, I hope one of those kids remembers that strange, countercultural thing their coach said in the huddle. Not the 2-3 defense or the games of knockout or the ladders we ran as a team. I hope they remember that thing that went against the way their parents talked about the game on the way in … and afterward. Or the advice they heard screamed from the crowd sidelines.
I hope they remember:
“Coach said he was proud of us because we played right- that we did our best.”
For the win.
What’s a story from your competitive experience where the bigger lesson was in losing? Share below!