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Original Issue


There were few girls' teams when I was in high school in the 1960s and the only sports-related group that received any attention or support was the cheerleaders. They had tryouts, practices, and tailored uniforms in the school colors, just like the varsity teams. It irked me that those girls were wasting their energy cheering for somebody else when they should have been out on the field themselves. My friends and I in the band would make rude noises on our clarinets every time the cheerleaders would come over shaking their pompons and telling us to straighten up. We had old, thick, green moth-eaten uniforms so heavy that every spring someone in the band would faint in the cemetery at the Memorial Day service. My socks never matched and I used to wear an enormous blue sweater that came down to my knees. Its poor fit and appalling color drove the fashion-conscious cheerleaders crazy.

"Make her take it off!" they would yell at the band leader. But he didn't mind. He'd always let me wear the sweater on the field as we paced around forming four-leaf clovers and diamonds while playing rousing marches.

Last fall I got a new angle on girls' high school sports. I was a coach. A week before classes were to start I was hired by the Berkshire School in Sheffield, Mass. to teach English. Four days before the semester was to begin I was informed that I also was the girls' varsity field hockey coach.

"But I've never seen a field hockey game in my life," I said.

On my application, however, I'd listed a number of sports that I like. The athletic director said that because I was athletic I'd pick up field hockey fast enough. The girls' athletic director said he hoped I would get good at developing strategy as the season progressed.

The first day of school I met my team down on the field. I was still trembling from my four English classes, which I was sure had been disastrous. It was a sunny autumn day and from the field there was a clear view of the distant Berkshire Hills. About 40 girls were sitting on benches wearing shin guards and holding what had to be field hockey sticks. They eyed me suspiciously. I eyed them nervously. The athletic director, a formidable, well-spoken gentleman, gave a short speech in which he let it be known that although I had never played and did not know the game, I had the makings of a fine coach. He then asked me if I had any remarks to make.

I stood up in front of the girls, most of whom were bigger than I, and fixed my gaze on a tree just behind them. Then I wondered what to say. I had never talked to a coach before, much less as a coach, but suddenly all sorts of coachlike words collided in my brain. Words like "blood," "get up and go," "respect" and "fight!" I ignored them and garbled something about how I didn't know the game but that I was very eager to learn it and that I was very enthusiastic about working with them. That much was true. When I sat down no one said a word. If someone had come over and told me I had just recited Jabberwocky I would have believed her.

I never did get good at developing strategy. It was all I could do to learn the basic rules of the game. Field hockey is complicated. Any time anything interesting starts happening the referees blow a whistle and everybody starts running the other way. There are more things you can't do in field hockey than things you can do. For instance, you can't raise your stick above your shoulder. You can't get your shoulder between you and the ball (I still have a murky grasp of that), and you can't even get in the way of someone on your own team. If the ball hits you, you get called for "advancing" because although the ball may have cracked your shinbone you are advancing the ball towards the goal. You have to sit down and cry before an official will believe that you didn't throw yourself in the way on purpose. Otherwise, the other team gets the ball. It can be a confusing, exasperating game for a novice.

People playing field hockey do cry a lot, though more often from their injuries than from frustration. That is one of the terrifying things about being a field hockey coach. Girls slump off the field toward you with broken fingers—we had three last season—disfigured faces, pulled muscles and ugly bruises. If you don't get whacked with a stick you can just as easily be clobbered by the ball. The ball is the size of a baseball but three times as concentrated and the combination of weight and speed can inflict an aching wound.

One of the first things a field hockey coach has to learn how to do is line the field. Daria VanGraafeiland, the coach of the junior varsity team, and I shared the task of pushing the little cart around the field. There are two cans of paint that fit side by side in the machine and if we were lucky we could get one or the other of them to spew out a trail. At rare moments both cans would spew at the same time, so the lines would look oddly thick at intermittent points. It took us about 3½ hours each time we relined the field and often longer if the previous lines had been washed out by rain. After we were through we felt entitled to a rest, and we would lie on the thick, soft grass and try to figure out exactly how this game was played. We would also ponder what to do at practice.

We had an awful lot of rain last season, so much so that the half of our field that was already squishy from an oozing sewer system became immersed in a sea of ankle-deep water. After a month of splashing and mud fights both at games and at practice we moved the field away from the sewer so that it included the entire baseball diamond at the other end. Visiting coaches would glare at the naked base paths, but the referees were on our side. They were just as glad not to have to run down the sidelines through the slime.

Our first game was at a private school about an hour's drive away. When we got to the school their coach came over and firmly gripped my hand. I met a lot of coaches during the season and I can say many of them are deadly serious. The playing rules are second nature to them and so they are able to spend time devising intricate strategies. Her players looked very professional as they ran in formation onto the field and began doing warmup drills. My legs felt weak.

"What are your feelings on substitutions?" she asked me briskly. "Well...," I said.

"How about at corners and penalty shots? Tell the ref first?"

"Fine," I said.

"And the halves. How long do you play?"

"Well...," I said.

"We've been playing 30 minutes."

"Fine," I said, looking at my watch.

She turned around and marched toward her bench. Immediately her team jogged off the field to cluster around her as she began giving them what I realized was a pep talk. I had a dreadful sinking feeling that I should have prepared something rousing to tell my team, but I knew I was incapable of producing the right vocabulary or tone. I looked around and saw my players scattered about, each warming up in her own way. Some of them were doing gentle exercises, some were thoughtfully contemplating the game to come, and still others were eating candy. Everyone looked calm, and I hoped I did, too.

I never got good at giving pep speeches. The best I could offer them was chocolate bars (lots of chocolate bars) and sympathetic remarks. I wanted to be able to roll out a blackboard, to chalk it up with X's and O's, draw wonderfully intricate patterns with fullbacks, halfbacks, forwards and wings executing masterful attacks. I wanted to be able to say in a gutsy voice, "O.K., kids, go with plan TKC and if you feel it falling through in the corner, Hillary, you pass to Diana and move on to K46 revised. Ingrid, you go for the Iron Claw." But all I could muster up would be—

"Hillary, try to pass a lot, O.K.?"

"Sure," Hillary would say and pat me on the back.

They were very tolerant of me. Every now and then one of them would take me aside and say something like, "Look, you've got to get the forward line thinking like a rubber band." Or, "Look, you're just not hard enough on her." That was always true. When a girl who had been playing terribly came off the field, my instinct was to console her, not to get mad at her.

It was a matter of the players inspiring me, not the other way around. The team had several wonderful players who had developed specialty shots—a lunge, a scoop, a drive. They came up against other schools whose rubber-band qualities were superior, but they managed to finish with a respectable .500 record, 5-5-1. They never looked very organized, but they had drive and courage. I was proud of them.

As the season progressed I began looking forward to games. I could figure out about half the penalty calls, and I even learned some appropriate words to yell. I would run up and down the sidelines screaming as I never had before, "Lunge!" "Block her off!" "Rush!" "Pressure, pressure, get aggressive, Greeeeen!" It was exhilarating. I got so carried away a couple of times that the referees asked the girls' athletic director to tell me to stop being disruptive or they would have to charge the team with a penalty for my behavior.

I was shocked the first time I was reprimanded. Here I was getting chastised for cheering, for being enthusiastic, for supporting my team. I who had been the No. 1 embarrassment to my high school cheerleaders. Here I was cheering, "Va va va veat, we're neat, we'll knock 'em off their feet—Va va va voon, real soon, we'll send 'em to the moon—Va va va vot, we're hot, we'll show 'em what we got—Va va va vad, we're bad, and we're really really mad! Yay Berkshire!"

I wasn't really worried, though; I knew I would still be an embarrassment to my high school's cheerleaders. After all, I was waving a field hockey stick instead of a pompon. My socks still didn't match. And I wasn't two feet off the ground arching back and beaming at a bunch of guys. I was down on my knees rooting for some girls who were working hard playing a difficult and strenuous sport. My friends in the band would have cheered, too.