I have just completed my ninth season of softball coaching. I started in college, responding to a call for volunteers to help with a local youth softball program, because I was homesick for the sport. Nine summers, eleven teams, and over a hundred kids later, I am on the board of directors for the organization and in charge of organizing the entirety of the recreational league program. I can't imagine not having it in my life, even during the busy stretch where I'm not sure I'll make it through and I get cranky and think, maybe this should be my last season. Because every time I think that, a different voice in my head responds, But it won't be.
It is something that I feel I will never be able to properly put into words. I've rambled on about little bits of the day to day before; I've written a few "big" pieces on the matter (like this one). But the magnitude of it all escapes me; why I do what I do is easy enough to articulate, but what it means... to me, for me, for the girls I coach... that's something else. Most days it's pretty easy; I take it at face-value. I help them learn to be better softball players, better teammates, and, with any luck, better people. Other days, the lens zooms out and I get a glimpse of a bigger picture and it's huge. It doesn't feel like much, but it goes beyond the simple act of throwing or hitting or catching a ball. There's so much of life intertwined with it. So much more teaching involved than I'm even aware of. And it almost knocks the wind out of me when I think about it too much. The things I say, the things I do - none of it is a throwaway word or action; like a parent, they are watching what I do. I could be affecting them, for better, for worse.
This particular bout of introspection was triggered by an article I happened to click on last night in my facebook news feed. It was nothing new or revelationary; hell, I'm not even sure that I haven't read this exact piece before. But it echoed something that I have been very mindful of, especially this season, for whatever reason. I have made a very concentrated effort to avoid discussing weight or body issues around my girls. It's something I have to watch myself on even more closely than swearing or making snide comments about, say, the other coaches when they are being rude. I can check my language; it's easy to avoid the 4-letter words. It's easy to stop myself from being snarky - sportsmanship, sportsmanship, sportsmanship... It's something I try to drill into their heads, and I may be a lot of things, but I try my damndest not to be a hypocrite.
It's really, really hard to bite back the self-deprecating comments. It's hard to hide my body image issues. It's hard to not make remarks about how sometimes I have to size up on my shirts or how they're all in much better shape than I am. If something like that does slip out, I'm quick to blame it on age. Never on size. I don't want them to even think about this or that body type being good or bad; I have some girls that are still shaped like toothpicks; I have others that are starting to fill out. I don't want them to play the comparison game. I don't want them to internalize that message - not from me. I may not be happy with myself, but I don't want them to know that.
Because if I can act like my size, my body, is no big deal... maybe they'll internalize that instead of the other messages they get. If I'm happy with myself, then hopefully they will sort of subconsciously learn to be happy with themselves, too. I'll lead by example that way, even if I have to fake it every step.
When I picked up the coaching mantle those many years ago, I didn't even think about it in terms of being a role model. I just wanted to get back to the game, and to "pay it forward" in a way. But I'm in kind of a unique position where I stand now. Most of the other coaches in this league are parents; I am the "other." There is less of a guard that is up, and that can go both ways. They may be more relaxed, but they are also more sponge-like. I am younger than their parents (though that won't always be the case - eventually, as I age and they don't, I will be the Matthew McConaughey of youth softball, except not creepy - eventually, I will be old enough that they could be my very own daughters) so perhaps that makes me more relatable. I know when I was young, I always looked up to the older girls and young women who I deemed as cool or impressive. And I want to be someone they can trust; someone they can confide in, if they need to. A fill-in big sister or a young, hip "aunt" even.
As the article states (and countless others, and all of our own personal experiences), girls will mold their body image off of what they observe, what is demonstrated to them - intentionally or not. They will absorb that feedback from their peers, sure - but they will also pick up more than you can imagine from the adult females in their life, especially those they trust.
And the ages I coach - those are the worst, for this. I coached two teams this summer - one full of 5th/6th graders and the
other full of 7th/8th graders. The age ranged from 10 all the way
through 14. I remember those years. Those years were awful. I wouldn't relive them if you paid me. And while they're starting to come into their own, starting to form the core of who they are going to be... there are people like me that they are looking to. And I know better, I know better than to entertain any sort of negativity around them. It was something I decided long ago without ever making a declaration to myself: do whatever you can to avoid damaging their sense of self. Don't buy into the body image game. It's too late for me, but not for them.
It's stuff like this that makes me stop and realize that, yeah, I'm coaching softball, but I'm not really JUST coaching softball.
And it just kind of sunk in what a hugely terrifying responsibility that is.
So. There's that. I don't have kids and I might not ever have kids, but I'm definitely shouldering my duty as part of the "auntie brigade" - I can still hopefully provide some useful guidance for the girls that are going to have to walk down the same road I did.
It's scary, and at the same time, I'm ready and willing to step up. If I can save anyone, just one, from falling into the trap of bad thoughts and self-loathing, then that, to me, is something worthwhile.