Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Learning Diversity from Preschoolers

It has been said that playing youth sports can lead to benefits such as higher grades, greater self-esteem, and stronger peer and family relationships[1]. What I learned, however, was that volunteering to coach those youth sports can lead to just as many unexpected benefits for the adults involved.

When my future stepson, Noah, decided to play tee-ball, I had no idea I would end up volunteering to coach. After all, I had no biological children on the team, and I would be the only female assisting. But when the director of the league said that if parents didn’t volunteer there would be no 6-and-under tee ball team, we took action. My fiancĂ© volunteered to be the head coach for fourteen children between ages 3 and 6; and I volunteered to assist him. He had never coached – or really played – baseball in his life, and it had been well over a decade since I picked up a glove. Together, we prepped practice schedules and batting lineups, and I set out to find team uniforms.

When we had our first practice, I quickly likened coaching tee-ball to herding cats. I was suddenly in charge of fourteen kids with little to no attention span who all came from different walks of life. There were four girls, ten boys, one Hispanic child, one African American child, one Native American child, one child with ADHD, one child who (by no fault of his own) wasn’t old enough to comprehend running bases, and several children who cared more about hugging my leg and chatting than they did playing ball. While working with the parents, I learned we had one single dad, three sets of divorced parents and corresponding step parents, one set of adoptive parents, one periodically disabled parent who had recently undergone back surgery, and one parent who had recently lost her husband; and then there was me – someone who had no legal claim to any child on the “Glenpool Wolfpack” team, and was suddenly in charge of helping make sense of the madness that is coaching preschoolers. It was easily one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my adult life.

In an office setting, employees are consistently taught that sensitivity to cultures and appreciating diversity is imperative to a positive work environment. Imagine my surprise when I realized that coaching a group of fourteen kids under age six would require the same range of sensitivity and understanding! How I spoke to one child sometimes had to be different than how I spoke to another child: talking about “mommy and daddy” in front of the child who recently lost his father may be more hurtful to him, while the adopted child hearing a teammate ask her, “how come you don’t look like your mom and dad?” may create a potentially uncomfortable conversation. The spectrum of sensitivity and understanding of different backgrounds and lifestyles that came with this voluntary job was something I never expected to encounter. By the end of the three month season, I learned that it was important to get eye-level with this age group; and it was just as important to do the same with their parents. I learned that some parents desperately want to help in any way they can, while it was a challenge to ask some parents to even bring their child to a game on time. I learned that even though I may need to cater to fourteen different developing personalities, it was vital that I treat every child with the same amount of respect and adoration.

Every child was coached to their ability rather than a set standard, but every child, no matter what, got a high five and a “Great job!” from Coach Courtney. There were nights after games that I felt I was more exhausted from trying to coach these fourteen personalities and wrangle them into the dugout than I was after an eight-hour work day. There were days when I had more angry phone calls and text messages from parents than I did visits from students in my office. There were moments that I wasn’t entirely sure that I could remember which child required which type of coaching. But there was not a day that went by that I did not appreciate every single one of those booming personalities and differences. Children were creating dialogues with me about differences that I simply cannot experience in a work setting – “How come his mom is never here?” “How come that dad is in a wheelchair?” “Why didn’t that person’s grandma ever bring us snacks?” It was an invaluable opportunity to talk to very young, malleable minds about the fact that not everyone is the same. Some people have one parent, while some people have four; some dads stay in wheelchairs, while some walk, some run, and some aren’t with us anymore. Some people have the opportunity to buy us snacks (“Isn’t that nice of them? Let’s go say thank you!”), and sometimes people aren’t in a situation to afford it (“But let’s go tell her thank you for coming to watch us!”). Seeing their sweet faces process this information and realize that it’s okay that their friends are different was something I will never forget.

By the time the last game rolled around, I desperately tried not to shed tears during our last team huddle. I never would have imagined that while coaching a six-and-under tee-ball team, I would learn more about life than they probably did about the sport. Differences aren’t just important in the workplace. Lifestyles unlike mine shouldn’t only be respected as an adult. Diversity lives in every age group, not just at the office. I feel honored and blessed that I was able to both coach and learn from a group of children who left a mark in my heart, and helped me celebrate their individualities in a way I didn’t know existed.

[one player not pictured]

[1]True Sport: What We Stand To Lose in Our Obsession to Win.” U.S. Anti-Doping Agency;;

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