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A great coach can be the best part of the game

MY DAUGHTER, Emma, is at an age when it seems like she’ll try anything, whatever captures her quicksilver interests: soccer, volleyball, debate, drama, hip–hop dancing. She’s at that enviable stage where new experiences are avidly sought and both the spirit and body are still plenty willing.

But there I go, bragging about my daughter again. When what I really want to talk about is her basketball coach, Ashley.

When there’s a zero in your team’s win–loss record, you hope it’s on the right-hand side, in the loss column (opposite of what you’d wish for, say, the Dallas Cowboys, to pick a totally nonrandom example). When it’s not—when a team has yet to taste victory and those ominous zeros are stacking up on the port side of the hyphen—it’s tough on the players. It’s tough on the team’s coach, too.

But need it be?

This is my daughter’s first year playing organized basketball and she’s really enjoying it. She has fun with the other girls, is happy to be learning a new sport and loves her coach. Sure, being on a winning team is a sweet ride, but—to paraphrase Shakespeare—the playing’s the thing. So, even though those goose eggs keep accumulating to the left, the Saints never fail to come marching in to every game with their heads held high and smiles on their faces, ready for fresh battle. Which is to say that, psychologically anyhow, they are already winners.

And much of this is due to their coach, Ashley—a friendly, tirelessly encouraging, relentlessly enthusiastic and faultlessly positive young woman.

Ashley attended Tulane University in New Orleans, a fine institution of higher learning conveniently located not too far from the French Quarter, a fine institution of hedonism. Maybe the Big Easy has rubbed off on her—she remains big-hearted with her girls and knows when (that is, always) to take it easy with them.

It’s not that she doesn’t want to win, mind you. It’s just not in her to scream and yell at a bunch of kids who really are trying their best. She walks softly and carries no sticks. (Schticks, however, are a different matter. There are plenty of silly faces and goofy laughter throughout the games.)

To be the coach of a winning team is simple. Winning coaches in the professional ranks are always smiling in their postgame interviews, full of benevolence and goodwill for their (now vanquished) opponents. A kind of false humility often pervades: “We got some lucky breaks today,” “The game really could have gone either way,” “What a dogfight [just-defeated team’s name here] gave us today,” etc.

However, to show composure—not to mention compassion, even happiness—as the losing coach is far more impressive. But this Ashley manages. She focuses on the girls’ successes—“You looked good out there tonight!”; “Way to hit the boards!”; “Good ball-handling!”—and never criticizes the errors that young girls—girls too young to really even have “game” yet—will inevitably make. (And I want to say, too, that it’s not only Ashley who displays this kind courtside equanimity, either; I’ve been impressed by all the coaches in this particular league. I just happen to have more chances to observe my daughter’s coach.)

The girls play many of their games at the Marshall Center at Spotsylvania Courthouse. It looks like a Hoosiers-era arena, a relic from basketball’s past. Just to enter this antiquated edifice is to feel transported back in time. The basketball court itself takes up virtually all the floor space, and the cacophony ricocheting off the cinder-block walls as you enter the building is deafening. Sound-wise, it’s immense. There’s a weird quality to the light inside, too—a sort of surreal milkiness—that adds to the “Twilight Zone” vibe. The spectator half expects to see Dr. James Naismith himself stroll onto the court, a peach basket under each arm, eager to explain some crazy winter game he’s recently dreamed up.

The very basis of competitive sports are as zero-sum games: one side wins and the other loses. But in youth league sports—developmental organizations where kids are still acquiring the fundamentals and slowly building skill sets from scratch—fun is, and should be, the primary objective. Certainly, the games should be approached as learning opportunities, growth experiences and chances to become, if not the best, then at least better. But gosh, have some fun doing it!

Which is why it’s great to know that coaches like Ashley exist. Coaches who raise their voices only to shout encouragement—no Final Four-level histrionics. Coaches who high-five a player as she leaves the court as though the kid had just drained five straight 3’s, just to let her know how much she appreciates her trying.

Coaches who have not forgotten their own childhoods.

PressMatt Mroczek