by Melissa Begley
One hears a lot about how things used to be.
“We had to walk to school; uphill; both ways.”
But all of a sudden, I am the old person doing the telling.
“We couldn’t just Google everything.
I didn’t have a cell phone until I was 25.
Summers were a time to be bored.”
There was a woman in my parish who ran the summer basketball clinic at Holy Child in Staten Island, N.Y., for who knows how long or why she did it. I remember attending it first in elementary school , and then being so super pumped and also felt totally cool that I was old enough to be a coach. The girls in the parish who were on the varsity team were invited to coach these younger girls. The concept was simple: Get the older girls working with the younger ones and see what happens.
It’s genius really. The little ones are getting some basketball experience and the older ones are putting their knowledge into practice and reminding themselves of what they need to focus on as well as learning to speak to a group.
In May, I was having a conversation with a dad on the soccer field talking about when and how I started to coach. My daughter overheard me and our conversation continued in the car and by the time we arrived home, we realized it was time for us to try and create a similar situation for some in Mt. Olive. She was nervous, of course, but I reminded her that the high school Varsity Basketball team had put together a similar clinic over the winter that she and her friends had attended and had a great time. Coach John Helder had done something similar with his Grade 5/6 lacrosse squad. I explained that the age gap was the same, and she was willing to give it a try.
One of the girls Helder pulled in was Shannon Meisel, an incoming junior who cheers and plays lacrosse. Meisel was coached by her sister Amanda and knew immediately that was something she wanted to pursue. As soon as she was of age, she was a camp counselor, then a cheer coach, and once she was in high school, a lacrosse coach as well. When asked if she would recommend coaching, Meisel says, “I would without a doubt recommend coaching to any one of my peers. It counts for great volunteer hours to begin with, but it is also a fun experience. My friends and I look forward to coaching every year and this is because we have so much fun with the girls. All the girls I have coached (both lacrosse and cheer) have been so excited and eager to learn and improve that it made the experience so much better.”
When asked if she has a preference, Meisel says, “Overall I love coaching both cheer and lacrosse. Sometimes it does get hard to complete school work, cheering for high school, and playing lacrosse. When it comes to coaching cheer, I had many high schoolers coach me over the course of my Rec days, and I wanted to be able to do that for others. I love coaching lacrosse because I am so passionate about the sport and I like being able to see the younger girls have the same passion for the game. They get so happy after they make a good play, or they win a close game, and it’s exciting to watch.”
As the coach of the varsity basketball team at St. Jude, I had access to a bunch of players who could possibly be interested in coaching. I had already lined up my squad of 16 who were interested in playing another summer session of PLB (Parking Lot Basketball) and asked if they wanted to coach. I had six who were interested and whose schedule permitted them to coach and took it from there. Jenna Alessandrini, Vaibhavi Borra, Gabby Helder, Ava Shawl, Holly Smitreski, and Rachel Watkins were up for the challenge. After checking with Father Antonio, pastor of St. Jude Thaddeus in Budd Lake, we were given the green light and the girls were up and running.
There were a bunch of things I wanted them to learn from this experience. As the end of the summer draws a little closer, I sit down with my daughter Holly Smitreski and her friend Rachel Watkins and ask them a few questions about how they think their clinic went. They spent June making fliers, designing a logo, and researching drills. They named the clinic, Basketball Universe: Summer Edition and are sad to see their season come to an end. The girls speak with the ease that only two twelve year olds on a summer in July can have. They sit in their basketball clothes with their long limbs, makeup free faces and the color of summer on their skin and I want to tell them to enjoy every second of it all, of sports, of life, of the challenges of middle school. To realize it’s all in the blink of an eye and none if it really matters. But before I launch into yet another lecture, my daughter starts answering my questions about why they wanted to run this clinic.
Smitreski says, “We really wanted to give girls an opportunity to practice basketball in a safe and nonjudgmental environment.”
Watkins elaborates, “We enjoy playing basketball ourselves and we wanted to encourage younger girls to find a fun sport that they enjoy.”
The girls tell me about the six pillars upon which Basketball Universe was centered. They are Skills, Fun, Learning, Working Hard, Practicing, and Team Work. The junior coaches spent some time explaining these pillars to their players. They also explain that at Basketball Universe, SPF stands for Strong Powerful Female. This has become the huddle chant last season before our games. We were not having a lot of wins and during one of our team talks and we decided that no matter how overmatched we may be, we wanted to remember that we were Strong Powerful Females. We wanted to improve our skill level and play every game. Watkins says that part of SPF is to “keep your heads up high and be strong and confident in yourself… no matter what.”
To set up each session, Watkins says “We break into stations: dribbling, passing, shooting, and defense and end each practice ends with relays which would be a fun way to recap what we learned during the practice.” I ask how they know what to do each session.
Smitreski adds that they incorporate “stuff that we’ve done in past years and we look some of the stuff up online. We research drills for younger girls and we watch videos and see how we can change them for our group of girls. We also change drills that we’ve done in other sports.” When asked about obstacles, she is reluctant to admit that “Some of them don’t listen,” and immediately she wants to take it back. Before I can explain that kids getting distracted or frustrated is part of coaching, Watkins interjects.
“You have to engage them so they pay attention and they do behave,” she says. “I’m glad that the girls got to witness this first hand because it is a part of working with others.”
From the classroom up through the work force, there is always a person who doesn’t want to do the work, and someone else who wants to fool around. The girls had to quickly deescalate situations where players were losing focus while still keeping the girls happy enough to come back the next week.
I ask about other lessons they can take from this experience and put towards real life. Anyone who has had me as a coach can recollect one of my catchphrases: “Sports is a metaphor for life.”
Watkins says, “Even if you have a perfect plan, it’s never going to go exactly as you planned, so you have to adapt and change it as you go.” I ask Smitreski for specifics about what hurdles they had to jump.
“Numbers, certain drills don’t work without a specific number of players,” she says. “You also have to change it if they don’t understand it, if it’s too easy, too hard, or if it rains!”
They also spoke about TeamSnap, an app used to track player availability for each session. This could help the junior coaches decide how many stations would be created for each evening and which drills would be taught at each. Because it’s the summer, we expected erratic attendance. Add in the rainiest Mondays in the history of summer, and it was tough for the junior coaches to plan. Players would forget to update the app, so Junior Coaches had to create practice plans, but be capable of changing it if fewer or more players showed up. The girls grew frustrated time and time again, but I explained that this was futile. Some people are unwilling to use the app. However, junior coaches now see how important it is for a coach to know who is coming to practice, and I bet the five of them never forget to update again for their teams. They have now witnessed first-hand how important it is to update your coach with availability in a timely fashion.
Some of the less chatty coaches describe their experience.
Gabby Helder, a freshman, says “Coaching them was heart-warming because seeing them smile is amazing.”
Jenna Alessandrini, an incoming seventh grader, says “I love being a Junior Coach for the little girls. Some of the girls there had never once picked up a basketball before our first practice. So, it’s really cool to see them learning so much and having fun at the same time.”
The girls do recommend coaching as a good experience.
Smitreski says “You have to be willing to put in the effort, but it is a lot of fun. It teaches you how to speak to people, be able to adapt, and deal with people who don’t always listen to you.”
Watkins continues, “When you help these girls, it’s really rewarding. You feel really good after giving back. You learn a lot from coaching because when you are telling other people things, sometimes it brings up stuff that you haven’t thought about for a while and it’s fresh in your head.”
I could not be prouder of my junior coaches. I watched them start in June ask 1,000 questions about each thing they would do. I watched them speak mousily to their players while looking to me constantly for reassurance as the sessions commenced in July. Now, they demand the girls’ attention and speak confidently. They argue with me and push me because they thought their players could handle more challenging drills. They were correct. They are excited about how they can continue and want to coach a basketball team in the winter and start a similar soccer program in the fall.
As parents, we want what’s best for our kids. We want them to be happy, we want them to learn to exist in the world independent of ourselves, we want them to thrive, we want a little better than what we had for ourselves. With youth sports being so different than what we grew up with, it’s hard to not take a step back every once in a while and say, “Am I nuts? What am I doing here?”
Maybe pause, and step back further and ask, “What is the end game here?”
There was no stepping back this summer.
I call it a win.