I'm exhausted out of my mind after a two hour tennis match, but I just can't sleep. Part of it is my brain looking at what I did well and what I didn't improve on. Part of it is a few aches. But the weird thing that kept popping into my head was a volleyball match that happened more than six years ago.
I wrote about it at the time, but the executive summary is that we lost our game four, and the match, because of a bad call. Not just a bad call, but the wrong call. My favorite kid blasts a hit from the strong side, and it bounces off of the block and out of bounds on our side. It was our point. Everyone in the gym, including the opposing team, knew this. The idiot ref, did not. Even the down ref couldn't make him understand he was wrong, and he was too stubborn to admit it. I cared very deeply about those kids, and to date, I consider that team my greatest achievement in coaching. Wronging them was like wronging my own children.
If that weren't bad enough, I had two problematic parents, one who wanted me to coddle her kid, the other suggesting I needed to yell more and be a dick. He even went as far as suggesting I didn't even care.
Once the gym was cleared, I had a mini-meltdown.
With all of the years the have passed, I can offer a little more context about why that was such a painful day.
It wasn't widely known then, but Stephanie and I were separated at that point, and she was living in Kent. Earlier that day, we went to see our couples therapist, and it didn't go particularly well. It was the first time I had considered that we might not get back together. We agreed that perhaps we should see other people, which arguably isn't likely to go well when you're still technically married. After 11 years in a relationship with someone, the only significant long-term relationship I knew, I felt completely lost.
To combat those feelings, and find some definition in life, I quit the crappy contracting job I had to worry exclusively about coaching. I had a varsity team at a tiny school, and I committed to challenging them to be bigger than they were. The athletic director scheduled a much harder schedule for them, too, which meant they wouldn't breeze through the season like they did the previous year, but I felt they'd be better for it. One of my former J.O. kids graduated from there the year before, and she talked me into it as a "fixer upper" opportunity.
I immediately connected with most of the kids. They were super smart, driven, and most were very open to learning whatever I threw at them. I think we ended just over .500, but we had epic battles against big schools, and they went from the junior high "W" serve receive to a swing offense that they ran themselves, in only a few short weeks of practice. The kids taught me that people will rise to the challenge if you let them.
I was emotionally invested in their success and development, so you can understand how the parent issues, which only got worse as the season went on, really took a toll. In retrospect, many were the "participation trophy" types that are turning our kids into crybabies. I remember after only one of the kids showed up to see the first round sectional (we earned a bye), in part because they all had other clubs or things to be at, my JV coach and I sat them down and told them that they were not going to be special this way, that the kids they'd compete with for college were all self-described over-achievers. It was a reality check they didn't want to hear, but I vividly remember one girl coming up to me after, and saying, "I know you're right... I'm sorry I didn't go to the match." That year, I had four former J.O. kids playing in college, all walk-ons. I knew what commitment could do.
In any case, it was the only time that an official cost my kids the match, and there are only so many times you can take getting kicked in the nuts in one day. It was not a good day. That moment I made eye contact with the ref, just before I walked the crying kids outside, stays with me, and still hurts. I remember what I said: "You're awful. You have no business officiating high school volleyball."
To look back at that period in my life, I see how much I defined my identity by my marriage, and my coaching. It's tempting to categorize that passion as destructive, but if you can't be passionate about things that you might fail in, you can't be passionate about the things where you succeed. The risk of the pain is worth the risk of the joy. It's the difference between making life happen and letting it happen to you.
Weeks later, in our last home match, the second against the much bigger Western Reserve Academy, my kids owned everything. We won in four games, convincingly. It was the validation that I so desperately needed, and to this day, that match defines why I love coaching. I also started to engage in another relationship after that difficult night. While complicated (as you'd expect when you're still married), it made me realize that people wanted to be with me, and it turned me around from the gloom and doom. Had I succumbed to the pain, I might never have experienced the joy.
These were great lessons for me, at just the right time. Maybe holding on to the pain of that day isn't constructive, but maybe it usefully reminds me of the joy that came later.