Basketball therapy

My husband is not really a basketball guy. He’s a baseball guy. He can recite the lineup of the 1969 Cubs from memory and tell you why Cub third baseman Ron Santo belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

But he is now in his third year of coaching my daughter’s grade school basketball team (mostly because the team needed a coach). His style can be called “relentlessly positive.” The girls seem to love him, except when he hollers at them for talking incessantly during practice, as of course they do sometimes.

In his first game coaching, our St. Matthias-Transfiguration team scored in the single digits; the other team scored 50-plus. That can set you back a little, confidence-wise. It quickly became clear that other teams in the league were far better, not to mention bigger, than we were. A small Catholic school, we need girls from several grades to make up a team, which means we have, say, four sixth-graders on the eighth-grade team. Just imagine the interesting height matchups.

We won one game the first year. The following year, the only team we beat had dropped out of the league. It figures. This year, we have won one game so far against a brand-new team that had never played together.

The girls begged my husband to come back and coach the second year, and the third. He’s tried to enlist assistant coaches who might make up for some of his coaching flaws, but, as you know, everyone is very busy. Still, he is more than aware of his own deficiencies. Sometimes after another loss he will say, “I know a better coach would figure out a way to . . .”

Our parents whoop and holler for each basket and cheer for the usually spirited defense of our less-talented team. You’d think the kids would bail on such a losing enterprise, but our girls are upbeat, not listless losers, NBA-style. My husband sets achievable goals: “Let’s score in double digits,” or “Let’s try to keep the opposing team under 40 points.” If they succeed, they are about as happy as if they had won the game. I told you he was relentlessly positive.

We play in a Catholic league, and it’s been instructive to observe the opposing coaches, who certainly know our team’s capabilities. One coach this year played his second string for three of four quarters; another told her girls in mid-game to take only outside shots. Others let their teams run up the score as high as they could. I’m sure these teams are learning their lessons accordingly.

At the next practice following each game, my husband would have each girl say what she did well and what she could improve on: They could always identify their weaknesses, rarely their strengths. Fearing they hated this ritual, one week he started practice without it. “Hey, Coach,” said Sophie, one of the starting guards, “aren’t we having basketball therapy?”

“What’s basketball therapy?” asked my husband.

“You know, where we sit around and talk about the game!” she said.

Basketball therapy it was.

At a recent symposium on the faith of Catholic adolescents, a diocesan youth ministry director observed that kids spend far more time in sports than in religious education. If coaches of Catholic teams, he said, “understood their roles principally as formers of Catholic faith and Christian character, what a powerful impact they would have on the faith of young people!”

   You know, having seen it in action, I think he’s right. Nice job, honey.

By Catherine O’Connell-Cahill, from the archives of At Home with Our Faith newsletter