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My Lessons Learned from an Undefeated Season

Ms. Robin Frates, Guest Writer

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I hate to lose. As a mature athlete, parent, coach, and teacher, I’ve come to appreciate the lessons in humility and grit that losing has taught me and the kids in my care. Surprisingly though, the year I coached an undefeated team came with its own set of unexpected difficulties and valuable lessons.

     I coached a girls’ Extra team in Beverly Hills for ages 9 to 12 for four years. In our first three seasons, we lost at least as many games as we won, but we had fun and developed skills and an understanding of the game.

     By the beginning of our fourth season together, the players had matured into skillful, motivated competitors. As a team, we decided to aim for the state championship.  Each of us took an index card and wrote “State Champion” at the top. Below, we wrote a specific skill that made us valuable team member, a skill or trait that we would work to improve, a plan for improving the skill we listed, and, at the bottom of the card, we wrote “teamwork/believe!” We zipped these cards into our backpacks, using them as reminders throughout the season. Thus we learned lesson #1: Naming a goal and defining how you will go about achieving it is a powerful step towards success

   Players practiced purposefully and played zealously. As the season progressed, a couple of serious injuries took key players out for 4 weeks at a time. Each injury forced the team to adjust, and adjust they did. The setbacks created opportunities for new player dynamics to develop, and players who had not considered themselves starters found pride in their contributions as the team did not lose a beat in spite of missing key players. We learned lesson #2: Absences and setbacks are opportunities in disguise.

    As we neared our goal, tension set in; the girls focused on winning instead of on playing well. Occasionally, players carped at each other’s mistakes or played selfishly, trying to take charge of a game on their own. Hard feelings from harsh words clouded our practices. It was time to recalibrate. We held a team meeting; this time, we took index cards and each of us wrote something troublesome that we thought a team mate had said about us and something negative that we had said or thought about our teammates. We took the cards, lay them on a pile of dirt, stood in a circle, and burned them. The ritual engendered giggles and tears, and when it was done, we stayed in our circle and repeated the goals and actions we had written down for ourselves at the beginning of the season. Our team went back to playing stronger and more unified than ever having learned lesson # 3: negativity sabotages teamwork, but you can replace it with positive action.

    We entered the championship tournament confident but jittery. We knew we were prepared, but for some players, the tension was unbearable. At halftime of the semi-final, with the score 0-1 in the opponent’s favor, the girls exited the field dejected about possibly losing. My usual pep talk was ineffective, so I asked them to stand up and follow along as I sang, “You put your left hand in. You put your left hand out….” A couple started to giggle and joined in. With a little coaxing, by the time we got to the left foot, the whole team was doing the Hokey Pokey. By the end of halftime, the girls had remembered how to relax and have fun; they quickly scored an equalizing goal, following it with two more, and we learned lesson #4: tension limits our abilities, but laughter relieves tension.

     We succeeded in winning the championship in February and continued our undefeated season all the way through June. Although we had more bumps along the way, we came to appreciate how each of our triumphs and setbacks brought us closer as a team and helped us to learn invaluable lessons along the way.

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My Lessons Learned from an Undefeated Season