Life Lessons My Coach Taught Me

Have you ever tried to play a field sport wearing at least 3 layers, to include a turtleneck, a long sleeve shirt, your uniform, thermal underwear, and running tights? Welcome to fall athletics in New England! This is 17-year old me, circa 1990 (before the advent of Under Armor for all you young people), trying to score lots of goals for the Cheshire Rams and keep warm doing it! Basically my teammates and I layered as much cotton clothing as we could and hoped the parents brought something hot to sip after the game.  More than a few games were played as snow was falling. Good times, great memories!

But playing field hockey for my high school coach was no joke. She had an impressive reputation, and you better believe each new batch of freshmen was scared speechless by the Force that was Coach Arlene Salvati – or just “Salvati” to those of us who played for her. I was no exception. My first year, I barely made eye contact. Instead I just kept my head down, stayed out of trouble, and worked as hard on that field as I possibly could. My teammates did the same. The program was so popular and so successful that we carried 3 full teams, with ample subs for each – Freshmen, JV, and Varsity. In fact, one season we added a fourth team, the “Froshmores,” to accommodate all of the freshmen and sophomores who wanted to play! Needless to say, this was Field Hockey Country, and our high school program was one of the best around. So when you play for a coach who has been inducted into the National Field Hockey Coaches Hall of Fame, with more than 33 years of experience, nearly 500 wins, and gosh – I don’t even know how many State Championship titles…well, you learn some things. You learn some things that prepare you for life, and I thought I’d take time to share a few.

1 – SHOW UP. If we couldn’t be perfect, we had to be excellent. She didn’t accept anything less and had far too many players standing by if someone on the field wasn’t prepared to give it her all. People who know me only socially and then see me play sports often comment that I become a totally different person on the field or on the court. And they are right, in a way. A competitor surfaces, the “such a nice and friendly person” persona starts to fade, I get my game face on and become a girl on fire. When the stakes are high, I hate to lose and I will work hard to win. My coach developed this in me – this ability to put everything else aside and focus on the task at hand. Life is this way, too. We only get one shot at it, one chance to make it as rich, fulfilling and beautiful as possible. There’s no time to waste with regret, self-pity, fear, distraction, or paralysis by analysis. Get out there and be the most authentic YOU that you can be. Find your lane, and then run boldly in it.

2 – COME PREPARED. One fitness assessment that Salvati used consistently and that every new deer-in-the-headlights player had nightmares about was the dreaded “9 Lengths.” This was a full-out sprint up and down the 100 yard length of the field, 9 times without stopping. That’s a little over half a mile at top speed. It doesn’t seem so awful now — and actually quite primal with a short but intense burst of energy– but at the time, with very able competition running beside (and ahead) of me – it felt like a death march every time we heard her whistle and the fear-inducing words, “Everybody to the endline.” The same awful routine. Every.Single.Time. She would stand in the middle of the field and pivot forward and back as we raced ourselves silly trying to get to the finish line within the allotted time. Silent tears were expected. Vomit was not uncommon. I’m betting a few teammates peed their pants on occasion. If you were brave, you might try shaving off the last 5 yards or so as you approached each turning point, but heaven help you if you ever got caught doing it! The really fast middle distance runners finished in under 3 minutes. I was not one of them, but wasn’t too far behind either. Those who finished well typically got more playing time in games, so it was constant motivation to work as hard as you could during this run.  Nobody wanted to be that last person struggling over the endline. In life, if we don’t figure out what we want our lives to be about, what “endline” we are striving for, somebody else will decide that for us, and they generally don’t ask for our input. Take time to brainstorm your dreams and ideas. Once you get a fuzzy idea of your “special purpose” (as my husband calls it), develop a plan to attain it. Do your homework and hold your own self accountable. Let others motivate and inspire you, but don’t succumb to petty competiton. Everybody runs their own race. Aim to be a little better than you were the day before.

3 – DON’T THINK FOR A SECOND THAT YOU CAN CUT CORNERS. There was a team rule that any player caught drinking during the season would be kicked off the team immediately. I’m not sure if that was a team rule, or a school rule, but regardless – it was a well known and oft-repeated threat rehearsed and rehashed each season. Prior to my own high school career, I knew of two incredibly talented players who tested that rule, got caught, and were promptly dismissed from the team. Both were amazing athletes, and one of them later played 7 seasons for the US National Team, so it was a huge loss when they got cut from the team. If I remember correctly, both were welcomed back the next season following their blunder, but the message sent was very clear: Don’t screw around. The rules apply to everyone. I can’t help but relate this to our food choices. We get away with SO MUCH while we are kids, and even as teens and young adults. Heck, I was in my 30’s before decisions and behaviors from the previous decades finally began catching up with me. But they did catch up, and they do for most people. You can’t escape the rules of nature. Garbage in = garbage out. It might take a lifetime until we see the effects, but in this day and age – our food choices are inextricably linked to the quality and longevity of our lives.

4 – SET HIGH STANDARDS. Salvati was a consummate professional. She made sure our jerseys were tucked in, our hair pulled out of our faces, and our behavior nothing but respectable. We played hard, but clean, on the field. We won and lost gracefully (I think?), we picked up after ourselves following games, and we took great pride in the winning tradition that was Cheshire Field Hockey. To this day, I still consider those 4 years some of the very best in my athletic experience. It wasn’t always fun or easy, but I still treasure everything about it. Decide in your life what your non-negotiables are. What are your unshakeable values? What standards have you set for yourself, and perhaps for your children? Are they appropriate? Are they realistic? Are they fair? It’s tricky business trying to set high standards and yet still leave room for our own humanity. We screw up sometimes. We miss the mark occasionally. But the great thing about life is that we usually get do-overs. Embrace those opportunities and learn from past mistakes. Don’t settle for less, and don’t be afraid to fail forward in your journey to reach your goals.

5 – PLAY SOMETIMES – Despite her intimidating demeanor, my coach sometimes let her guard down and revealed a playful side. I can think of no better example than when it came time to order our team spirit wear. Each season she would approach the team with her ideas for clothing, and we knew enough to agree to whatever she proposed. Two of my favorites were the cardinal red corduroy letterman’s jacket and an oversized hunter green sweatshirt with a giant red and white striped C on the back. We looked like 1980s Christmas candy canes! She clearly loved this whole clothing process, and I remember being so stunned to see this fashionista side of her revealed. It made her human. And play makes US human. Learn to unwind, disconnect, unplug, and go barefoot. Play with your kids. Chase after the dog. And for goodness’ sake, laugh at yourself once in a while. It’s so freeing!

I don’t know if she will ever see this, but in any case – Thank you, Salvati, for making me tough and resilient and determined. Thank you for allowing me to become a leader on our team and for teaching me what it meant to be part of a united effort towards a common goal. And most of all, thank you for helping me discover that there is more in me and to me than I ever realized.