To address the discrimination in athletics that girls still face in high schools across the country the National Women's Law Center has launched the "Rally for Girls' Sports: She'll Win More Than a Game" campaign. As part of the campaign, I was invited to participate and to write a blog about the advantages of athletics participation and how it has affected me in my life by answering the question, "What did you win by playing sports?"
As those who have read my articles and blogs on MomsTeam.com, heard me speak around the country, on radio or television, or read my op eds or book, Home Team Advantage, know, I have often used personal stories from my past in my work advocating for safer, saner, less stressful and more inclusive youth sports.
But of all the of my memories of my years as a young athlete, lessons learned, friendships made, severe injuries overcome, and physical stamina and endurance gained, the one I remember most vividly was about the time I was kicked off of my freshman field hockey team for attending a Halloween dance the night before the last game of the season. I didn't know it at the time, but, looking back, it was the most important lesson I ever learned through sports; one I have carried through my life: that sometimes when you think you have lost, you have actually won.
There were few opportunities for an athletic teenage girl growing up in the 1960's to play team sports in the days before the enactment of Title IX. So, when I finally got to high school and could follow in my older sister's footsteps and tryout for the junior varsity field hockey team, I was over the moon.
The summer before I started ninth grade, I practiced dribbling a hockey ball for hours every day so I would not only make the team but be able to play well in the games. There were no camps, clinics, private instructors or elementary school programs to prepare me for field hockey tryouts in the little New England seaside town where I grew up. I was on my own, but determined to be a productive member of a high school team.
I made the team along with twenty or so other freshman girls. Each of us was thrilled to have been given the opportunity to play on our high school team, which, year after year, won the state championships. Our coach, Miss Brooks, was a drill sergeant and did not seem to care much for any of us. She was also the coach of the varsity girls team and, understandably, spent the bulk of her time coaching and training them. She left most of the coaching of our team to her, assistant, Miss Hibbett, whose job it was to prepare us to be varsity players.
Coach Brooks was a no-nonsense coach. She rarely smiled and had very strict rules that she distributed to us on mimeograph paper and drilled into our heads with constant verbal reminders. No gum chewing, no detentions, no cigarette smoking etc.
We had a good season and were looking forward to joining the varsity the next fall. There was an abundance of talent on the team. We expected to not only make the varsity but be its next stars. At the same time, we were very careful to follow Coach Brook's rules, scared to death of the consequences that would befall us if we dared to defy her authority. Naturally, we all looked up to the varsity players, especially the starters. After all, our field hockey program was the pride of the school.
The week before Halloween, which fell on a Monday my freshman year, we were informed about a new rule: No player would be permitted to attend the Halloween school dance because there was a game on Tuesday. We were crestfallen. It was our first year of high school and our first school dance, and the Halloween dance was all we had talked about for weeks.
Where did Coach Brooks' edict come from? It was not on our rule sheet! Certainly, we all agreed, it wasn't a fair rule, and, if we all went to the dance together, she wouldn't enforce it, would she? And besides, how would she ever know if we attended? And if she did find out, we figured, we would be let off with a stern reprimand. She wouldn't kick us off of the team. Or so we thought.
So we went. Eighteen of us; along with a couple of sophomore girls from the junior varsity. We were having the time of our lives when my then-best friend, Lisa, ran up to me and said, "Oh, my god! Coach Brooks is here!" "Run for the bathroom," she said. The word travelled quickly, but some of the players never got off the dance floor before Coach Brooks bellowed their names (right in front of the seniors and all the boys!): "Holly, you are off the team. Kaki, you are off the team. Wendy, off the team, Heidi, off the team, Lucy, you are off the team!"
And then she made her way to the girl's bathroom. By that time Lisa had come up with the idea to hide under all the coats that were piled up on the floor outside the stalls. I was safely hidden, or so I thought, in one of the bathroom stalls, along with three other girls.
Suddenly, Coach Brooks burst through the stall door and began rattling off our names followed with "YOU ARE OFF THE TEAM."
On her way out she spotted Lisa under the coats. "Lisa, you forgot to cover your feet. YOU ARE OFF THE TEAM!"
We were all ordered to the Principal's office and told to call our parents to come pick us up. Then, through our tears, we realized that there were two players missing. The "twins" were not in the room. Where were the twins? Had there mother already come to pick them up?
Back home, crying and devastated, the phone lines were jammed with angry parents, confused team mates and three baffling questions: Why couldn't we go to a school dance, how does coach have the right to deny us the right to participate in a school function and where were the twins? None of us had been able to reach them on the phone.
The next day, we walked around school with our heads down and eyes red from crying. Life was not fair, we let our team down, and it would soon become a whole lot less fair when we realized that the Twins had not been caught and apparently were the only girls at the dance who had avoided the wrath of Coach Brooks. Our mothers were quick to suggest that it was probably because their mother was the president of the boosters club and a close friend with Coach Brooks.
The following season only three of the freshman girls (now sophomores) showed up for field hockey tryouts. Most of my friends were forever turned off from sports by the politics, saying "we won't play for a coach who is not fair, who knew the twins were at the dance yet never kicked them off the team." During the tryouts, two of the girls dropped off, claiming it was too much work and could not be around the coach and the twins who refused to kick themselves off the team the previous fall after the Halloween Massacre.
I was the lone sophomore left from the group of rebels to continue playing. I had a true desire to excel and loved the sport. Coach Brooks never spoke to me during my sophomore year and only once during my junior year when she said, "Congratulations, you have made varsity." I continued to excel and knew that I was playing for myself and my teammates and not for my coach, who continued to demonstrate poor sportsmanship and act improperly. In my senior year, I became team captain; we had an undefeated season and we went on to become win the Massachusetts State Championship. Life was good.
I learned a lot of lessons from Coach Brooks, almost all of them lessons about what not to do as a coach, which I put to good use (or non-use, as the case may be) during the years that I coached. I learned how not to play favorites. I learned how not to let politics get in the way of fairness. I learned how to win through persistence and hard work and never-say-die attitude.
They were lessons that I have carried throughout my life and have used as a springboard to become a leading youth sports expert, activist, author and founder of MomsTeam.com to educate and empower parents to become the very best advocates for their young athletes, to fight the politics and favoritism, and to keep them from being physically, sexually and emotionally abused.
Because of all the tough sports lessons I have encountered along the way, I have become a winner in many ways, whether running my corporation, writing or parenting my sons, I know which shoals to avoid and which to teach others about, and I know that politics is a very destructive part of life but from those early experiences I have become a stronger and more productive individual and parent. I win every time young sports parents from around the country take the time to thank me for making their lives better and for providing solutions to real life problems.