Here’s a story I started writing about a month ago about my wife and tee-shirts.
We’re out back on the patio, doing coffee. There’s a breeze cutting the heat of the sun, which keeps slipping out from behind some shuffling cumulus cloud cover.
“I think crushed sounds better than broke,” she says.
“Like, more — hip?”
She looks at me.
“More kiddish,” I say. “More now.”
She nods, then reads aloud what she’s typed into the body of the email she’ll soon send to the woman who designs and makes her cross county team shirts: PRs are made to be broken, so I crushed mine.
“Sounds good,” I say, emphasizing the last word with a little jump in my tone.
A little later she shares with me another quote she finds on Pinterest. It’s more of a vignette, really: a child asks a father why Mommy has just run by the house; Dad tells the child that Mommy has misjudged the distance of her run and has kept running until her Garmin GPS watch lets her stop.
“This is so me,” she says.
“Did you pin that?” I ask, thinking maybe it would make for an interesting surprise gift of sorts: the story printed on a tee-shirt, perhaps.
Again, she nods. She’s proofing the email she’s just finished writing to the woman who designs and orders tee-shirts for her team.
She reads me the email, and when I tell her it sounds good — “To-the-point and clear,” I say — she sends it off, then gets to the task she’s been struggling with since getting home.
“Stop,” she says.
I close my mouth and get back to pecking this post out on my phone.
She, meanwhile, gets back to pecking a message to the runner who told her this morning that she wouldn’t be running this year on account of an injury.
She told me to stop because what I was saying had ceased being helpful. I was writing the message for her. Trying to.
I go back to writing with a better, or broader, understanding of how difficult her task is.
Chastened, is what I mean. I am chastened. Humbled.
How to make a message that balances the disappointment and frustration of losing a young runner to injury with the hopeful and encouraging tone a coach should affect toward all athletes?
Perhaps the bigger issue she’s facing is how to manage the feeling that she, in her role as coach, has somehow let the athlete down.
Earlier, I listened to my wife tell a friend of hers over the phone that she knew it wasn’t her fault, but knowing did little to lessen the guilt.
You can’t always talk yourself out of feeling your own feelings.
I think of all the various ways I’ve learned this lesson myself.
Teaching and coaching are equally unforgiving in the sense that they’re often thankless professions. The performances of the athletes under a coach’s guidance, or the students under a teacher’s, are subject to so many factors beyond the coach’s or teacher’s control. When things are going well, everyone assumes things are as they should be. When things fall apart, blame often falls first and hardest on the path setter, the guide, no matter whether it should.
Sometimes it should.
Because this is true, and because it’s so difficult to discern when it’s the case the coach or teacher should be blamed, most coaches and teachers assume it must be their fault this time.
The good ones find ways to make of these moments occasions for reflection. They reconsider and revise and plan to improve, so that they don’t fail in quite the same way again. They get sharper. They grow. They model for their students and their athletes how to do these things.