Tuesday, August 20, 2013
People are always surprised when they find out that I coach freshmen football. Not only am I a woman who has never played the game (I lettered in track in high school) I'm a librarian and a writer. At first glance none of these things appear congruent with the football coach personality type, but after one season of coaching I can tell you that football is as creative and collaborative as any artistic endeavor.
The only way to become a writer is to write. A lot. And a lot of what you write is never going to be seen by anyone else. This can be a bitter pill to swallow, but there's no way around it. The more you practice, the better you get.
This obviously applies to sports. In football we practice plays and different skill drills, such as ball security, footwork or tackling. In writing there are exercises for setting, dialogue and point of view. After the exercises you edit, and edit more, trying to perfect a play or paragraph. Whether you're playing or writing, drills, exercises and editing can tire you out. The real test is how you keep moving forward through fatigue, through exhaustion and occasionally through fear.
While I would never want a player to be afraid on the field, I do believe fear plays a role for athletes and artists alike. Fear can serve as a warning device, but at its most effective, it presses on ego and boosts determination to push past it. While writers are rarely in physical distress (I guess if you spilled hot coffee on your lap...) football players can become injured. Fear keeps one alert and focused, both necessary ingredients for success on the page and the field. Fear also prevents complacency, which is dangerous to all of us.
I've been afraid as writer when I've felt stuck on a plot point or faced the dreaded writers' block. On the field I've stood too close to a drill and missed being tackled by inches. Sometimes a ball whirls by my head and I realize I narrowly missed being hit in the face. That kinda scares me. At the same time, I feel both fear and excitement when I hit the send button for a piece of writing I want considered for publication. It's scary to risk being rejected, but it's exhilarating having skin in the game.
Players and coaches experience that same combination of nerves and adrenaline on Game Day. Will the plays be executed as we practiced? Can we stop the run? Can the line give the quarterback the time he needs? For all the practicing we do, the reality is that anything can happen in the heat of the moment. In every game the unexpected will emerge in all its incarnations: good, bad and the ugly.
A live football game is not a situation with guaranteed outcomes. While we can predict that if players run their routes incorrectly, the play will be be broken and an opportunity missed, players (not unlike fictional characters) will often go their own way because practice doesn't always make perfect. Writing is the same way. I can work hard on writing the best novel I can (done that). I can craft an amazing query letter for an agent to represent me (done that). I can start a blog and build a web presence (done that) but none of those things will guarantee I will ever find an agent and get my book published. (Still waiting.)
So why bother to play the game at all?
In football we win or lose. In writing the line between success and failure is more challenging to define. Am I a failure as a writer because I haven't secured an agent? Am I a winner because I "own" my writing life and embrace it and take it seriously? As an artist I have to define success differently than an athlete would if I want my physical and mental stamina to last.
I write and I volunteer to coach football in order to be on the field, both literally and figuratively, to see that point on the horizon where an opportunity is within my reach and I grab at it with all my might.
Maybe the YMCA philosophy is right, maybe everyone is a winner, just for being willing to play the game.
**Our first Frosh football game is Wednesday, August 28 at 6 p.m. at Husky Stadium.**