by Jack Kintner
What did we learn: An essay following a winless season
By Lowell Jackson
Blaine’s varsity basketball teams have seldom had it so rough as this past season, both going winless in league play. While you can be sure a season like this sticks in the craw of the new Lady B’s head coach Rob Adams and the Borderite boys’ head coach Dan Rucker, both found plenty of teaching moments in the experience for their young athletes, especially for those who will come back next year to be a part of building momentum for the future. Coaching is tough enough; in times like this we’re fortunate to have two such thoroughly professional practitioners of the art guiding the programs.
It’s because athletics at any level aren’t all about winning, a cliché that must also be lived in those years when wins are few and far between. The power of sports to entertain and to enthrall has a lot to do with the way participation in it serves as a working metaphor for learning lessons about life, about continuing to be a learning person in situations that may seem overwhelming, about integrity, maturity and resilience, about surviving the failures that sometimes happen when you take risks.
Winning is really just a by-product of a fundamentally sound approach to teaching young people about life, one that involves supportive families, competent coaches, willing and disciplined team mates and safe and available equipment. This is because winning most of all comes from within, and the best coaches draw this out of their teams. You’ll find this principle at work in many different sports programs that involve Blaine’s young people well before they get into high school.
An example of the relative value of winning is in the program Blaine’s head wrestling coach Craig Foster has put together, an effort that has survived much more than a winless season. Fourteen years ago Foster took over a program from Randy Deming, who like Foster had been named state coach of the year (1990). But Deming resigned a few months later under a cloud of allegations about improper conduct toward students which far overshadowed the 14 league championships, 10 district championships, seven regional championships and one state title his teams won. The painful episode factionalized the school and town, leaving Foster little to build on.
Out of that, Foster built a program that’s had its bright spots and good performers, and this year is emerging as a bona fide team. He’s done it by focusing on a disciplined approach that asks the kinds of things of his athletes – some as young as six years old, in his Barracuda program – that once learned serve as lessons about life itself. His fellow coaches elected him coach of the year at last month’s state tournament even though Blaine finished 37th out of 43 teams. Winning isn’t everything.
Another example is the sixth grade girls’ team in the local AAU basketball program, coached by Lawrence “Fuzz” Perrin. The team went 10-25 his first year as coach “when I was telling them things about life that at first they didn’t get,” he said with his characteristic grin. “But when they believed in what I said, then winning began to come,” he continued. The last two seasons the team has won over 70 games while losing under a dozen, “and it’s them and their work, their success, not me,” he said.
“The goal is to teach life,” Perrin said, “and these young ladies have listened.” He has given the nine girls on the team nicknames characteristic of their play, and insisted that if one were listed then all nine must be. “I care about these kids,” he said, “so list everyone. You’ve got my little ankle biter, the intimidator, Ashley Lindemann. Lauren Cummings, my Quiet Riot, who quietly beats you up. Payton Steinbach, the Dominator, and Emily Ross, Ms. Muscle. We’ve got the best sixth grade basketball player in the state in Olivia Moore, little Miss Rock Solid, and our quick little Speedy Gonzales in Cheyenne Martinez. Kailey MacLeod is the team’s inspirational leader, and tough, dedicated Leilani Miguel is hands down the most improved.”
last player Perrin names is his daughter
team workaholic,” he laughs, remembering
the story about when the team lost a close
game because she missed two last second free
“We leave it on the court and don’t mope about losing,” he said, “but when we got home she went out and shot free throws. It got dark and she was still shooting. We called her in and finally she quit after several hours. She left that loss behind but was she ever ready for the next time.”
Perrin also coached football with the Blaine Boys and Girls Club, losing only one game each of three years. The one time college all-American quarterback at Kansas Weslyan University said his secret is that he doesn’t lie to the girls. “I’ll get on them when they’re giving less than I know they can. I can be harsh but my job is to teach them life, what they’re going to be up against for the rest of their lives.”
Perrin uses a set of principles first laid down by the long-time leader of Blaine’s AAU program Red Goodwin, now serving on the Blaine school board. It begins with a three-part goal, “to listen and learn from the coaching staff, to be prepared for practice and games, and to develop into the best player I can be.” This is followed by 10 “things to avoid if you want to win,” and at the bottom the single sheet says “Remember: basketball is the greatest game. Enjoy yourself.”
It’s possible to win without learning anything about life from the experience. Perrin, Foster and hundreds of other coaches, parents and friends in Blaine know and teach that if you focus on the work and the learning, winning will happen. It isn’t everything in sports and in life, but it’s nice when it happens because of the kind of hard work that is its own reward in getting ready to live the rest of your life, win or lose.