I can relate to Charlie Brown’s teacher. She speaks — and Charlie and his pals in the “Peanuts” cartoon hear noise without words.
As a coach of numerous teams, I have seen that blank look, recognized the glare and the stare and wondered if anyone would notice if I switched to a discussion of lollipops and subatomic particles.
I am near the end of a basketball season. As we were winning a recent game by 20 points, one of the boys on the bench confided that he wished the game was more competitive.
In our next game, he got his wish. In a physical contest, the officiating seemed unbalanced. How, several parents articulated with increasing volume as the first half drew to a close, did we get so few foul calls when we could see the red marks on our children’s arms and necks from contact with the opposing players?
With concerns about calls, parents and the kids became increasingly vocal. During my halftime talk, I could see the hurt and anger in the kids’ eyes. “How come he can keep pushing me and he doesn’t get called for a foul, and I go near him and the ref blows the whistle?” one of them asked.
Officiating isn’t easy. I was an umpire for baseball games in which every full-count pitch was a borderline strike. It was up to me to decide whether the boy struck out or to send him to first base.
Still, in that moment, as the coach of those boys on the basketball court, I was frustrated. I did what I imagine chairmen do: I sent my assistant coach to ask the referees about the calls. It was cowardly, but I wanted to stay on the court and try to manage through this tense contest. I could be the good guy and he could be the one whining.
I told the boys to play hard, stay focused and stick together. An eight-point deficit, I insisted, was manageable, especially with an entire half left in the game.
But then something happened early in the second half. As the game got close, one of the boys from the other team got fouled on a 3-point shot. He stepped to the line in a quiet gym. Just as he was getting ready to shoot, one of the parents on my team barked at him, making him alter his shot and causing him to miss. The referee threw out the parent and the boy made the next two free throws.
While I didn’t agree with many of the foul calls, I understood the need to eject the parent.
With the game close the rest of the way, parents, coaches and players became increasingly animated, sharing the kinds of noises you’d hear at a Red Sox-Yankees game. What’s the right message to offer the kids at the end of a tense game?
I got my answer a few days later, when I interviewed Port Jefferson Station’s Annie O’Shea, who has had a breakout year in the World Cup in skeleton racing. Driven by teamwork and an ability to prevent any adversity from turning into negative internal dialogue, O’Shea found the kind of consistent success she’d always sought. She won gold and silver medals in races against the top international sliders and finished fourth for the entire season in the World Cup.
She said she stays focused on each turn, without worrying about the clock, what someone said or anything else that might slow her down. It all started with a positive attitude. That kind of attitude doesn’t come from barking or from screaming about calls from officials. It comes from working together and staying focused.
So, did we win? Does it matter?