Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
I felt like I was a character in a movie I was warned not to see. The parent on the sideline yelled at me so virulently, you would have thought that I had just committed murder.
No. Alas, I was just coaching some 11-year-olds’ baseball game. The man (a parent from the opposing team) screamed louder and louder, “Get the kids off of the damn field. It is too dark for them to play.”
It was beginning to get dark. The game was incredibly close. The umpire and all of us coaches from both teams decided before the inning began, that there was still plenty of light. Finally, I turned towards the man and said, “Sir, please stop yelling.” His anger intensified as he started to approach the field. He hollered, pointing at me, “I know you. I know exactly what kind of person you are…all you care about is winning. Winning for you is more important than the safety of our children.” My lower sense of self shot back, “What is your problem? You have no idea who I am or what I am about.” I wanted to say worse.
I looked at the other coaches and the umpire; and we knew it was time to end the game. Our kids were devastated. They felt like they were cheated out of their comeback victory. I felt cheated. Some of the kids cried. As angry as the little boy inside of me felt, it was quickly clear that there were life lessons brewing in the environs.
My co-coaches and I sat with the boys on the outfield grass for our traditional post-game process. The sun set and the breeze cooled us down ….on all levels. We spoke about fairness and disappointment. We spoke of how to carry ourselves in the face of defeat; how to respect our opponents; especially when we feel cheated. We talked about how to grow from defeat; how to dust ourselves off and walk proudly forward.
We didn’t make believe that losing was better or more honorable. We affirmed our collective disappointment in losing, and we renewed our commitment to be better and win the next time. But along with a commitment to win had to come the affirmation to be decent and good. I told them how proud I was of them. I told them I believed in them. I told them they had heart….and they do.
I have played many roles in my life: Son, Brother, Grandson, Friend, Fraternity President, Student, Teacher, Husband, Father and Rabbi. Never have I been Coach.
My son is a dedicated young ballplayer, and when I simply mentioned the idea of coaching, his eyes sparkled. That was enough for me to give it a try. In fact, I only volunteered to help out as an Assistant Coach, but somehow the town mistakenly made me Head Coach.
I know baseball. I know children. But I don’t know the “inside game” the way a coach should. Needless to say, I have been working my tail off. No one knows the hours that coaches put in to make team sports possible all over our nation. This is pure volunteerism. I know there are dire needs in all corners of our world. But make no mistake, coaching is noble work. Managing rules, schedules, line-ups, practices, town politics, kids and parents…..and one’s own ego, is a handful. I salute coaches who do this in every crevice of our country. Most of them do it with a steadfast dedication to children, ethics, camaraderie, sportsmanship and community. They are teachers of life. I am not writing of the rabbi here who mistakenly fell upon the title of coach. I am talking about those who do this annually with selfless devotion.
New research shows that the model coaches display for their players has more influence than ever before on the trajectory of a child’s evolution as a human being. Young boys and men in America, for a variety of societal and familial reasons, are especially starving for mentorship. The role of Coach is one of the major conduits for teaching young men character and grit.
I am guessing the man who yelled at me just had a bad day. He didn’t know me. Not because I am a rabbi (we live in a town different from the one in which I serve, so he wouldn’t have known one way or another), but because I was just a new coach trying to manage the game. He presumed I was one of the few infamous coaches who really don’t care about anything but winning. Please note, so far in my travels, I have not met any like that. For one reason or another, he was hot. I hope the way everyone acted around him cooled him down and the next time he chooses a different path.
I deal with so many blessed complexities in running an almost 1,200-family congregation. Still, nothing is as complicated as raising children. The coaching journey has been a mammoth learning experience. Simultaneously, it has been one of the most fruitful experiences of my life. And most importantly, this is a priceless gift my son and I have given to each other, one that will remain with us for the rest of our respective days on earth.