What's On My Mind

May 7, 2016

Doing the Laundry
by A. J. Kohlhepp

photos AJ Kohlhepp

If you ask me about my strengths as a prep school squash coach, I will usually echo Dustin Hoffman’s iconic character in Rain Man:  “I’m an excellent driver.” 

Given the fact that my winter coaching assignment involves multiple Wednesday and Saturday journeys across the frozen New England landscape, with me behind the wheel or a 7- or 14-passenger vehicle, this ability is pretty much a necessary criterion. 

But I can add another element to my skillset after the most recent season, and this latest addition says a lot about my emerging approach to my role as coach:  I do laundry.  Not every day, mind you, and not with the same sparkling results as Berkshire’s equipment manager, Skip Bowman, but often and well enough to serve the needs of my team. 

I have not always been the sort of coach who would collect and launder the sweaty uniforms of his athletes. In fact, I have not always been the sort of coach who even paid attention to such aspects, leaving it up to individual players or team leaders to ensure appropriate garb for practices and matches. When team members failed to measure up, I would greet their failures with sarcastic commentary or, worse still, silent disappointment.  Athletes met my sartorial expectations, and the many others I held (but few of which I was explicit about), or they faced my condemnation.

Instead of focusing on what my teams wanted or needed, I generally focused on my own expectations for a “varsity” program.  Rather than establishing goals through dialogue and consensus, I autocratically posted them and expressed frustration when athletes and teams failed to measure up.  I think I have made strides in that regard over a decade and a half in the role, but my evolution has been anything but linear, and the most salient lessons for me have come about when I least expected them.

February of 2015, a challenging squash season as a whole, represented a kind of nadir.  My girls played badly against the Millbrook Mustangs, a team we have usually beaten over the years, and I unleashed a torrent of invective when we convened in the visitors’ changing room.  I intended my post-game remarks to spur these girls toward increased effort level down the home stretch, but my diatribe cast a pall over the remaining weeks of the season.  I was sad to say goodbye to our seniors after the season-ending New England tournament, but I feel safe in saying that we were all glad to be done with it.

Fast forward to February 2016.  This year’s motley collection of Bears was struggling through an even darker winter, at least in terms of quantifiable results.  With two key starters lost to graduation, I had known that that 2015-6 would be a challenging campaign.  When two returners opted out before the season began and our #2 player left school at the end of the first semester, I was looking at the weakest team I had coached in years. 

As we made our way through January, the losses mounted. We dropped close matches to teams we usually beat and got crushed by teams that we usually threaten.  But the Bears battled on, and their resolve never slackened.  And throughout this season, in which I expected little to nothing in terms of the won-lost record, I never lost sight of my own objectives:  to support them on their terms, rather than my own; to help each athlete continue to improve; and to help this lean, mean eight come together as a unit. Instead of telling them how they had failed, I asked them what they needed.  Every now and then, this was laundry service.

So I collected and washed and folded the uniforms, and I kept driving the van, and I encouraged the repetition of profane dub-step playlists that drove me bonkers, and I found instances to praise play among opportunities to exhort further exertion.  

A couple of February rematches proved to be the turning point.  Having lost to Williston 4-3 at home, we traveled to their raucous courts and eked out a gritty 4-3 win.  Immediately after that, we took Millbrook to the very brink, losing 4-3 by the slimmest of margins after having been pummeled 6-1 by those same Mustangs just a few weeks earlier. (It was a similarly lopsided loss to that same school that had pushed me over the edge the year before.) But what would that late surge mean heading into the NEISA tournament? 

Getting word that we had been relegated to the C division after many years at the B level, the girls felt optimistic about our prospects.  Given the strength of our schedule, the commitment of our training, and the results from our last few matches, we sensed that a podium finish was within reach.  Little did we know what these Bears could do when they really set their minds to it.
Arriving at host site St. Paul’s School late on Friday night, Berkshire got off to a blazing start. Five Bears out of seven claimed victories to advance to the semifinals in their flights, and the same five pushed through to the finals the next morning.  Chase and Emily, who had lost in the first round, added to our aggregate point total with strong second days, fueled by some late-night gelato and a good night’s sleep.  #7 Morgan and #3 Maggie stormed to victory in their respective flights, while #5 Mia and #6 Tara came up just a bit short, settling for second place.

Prior to the fifth game of her final match at St. Paul’s, which also happened to be Berkshire’s last of the New England tournament, #2 Madison was struggling.  In between gasps for air and gulps from her water bottle, she managed one desperate sentence:  “I can’t do this.” A small smile of recognition played across my face, for I had heard this same disclaimer dozens of times, in the classroom and across the quad and on the court, throughout her four years at Berkshire.  And I had an easy reply, which I delivered quietly amidst the courtside chaos.  “You can,” I reminded her gently. “And you will.” 

And she did, seizing game five with gusto, earning herself an individual championship, and closing the ledger on our team’s accomplishments.  When the din had died down in the McClane Squash Courts at St. Paul’s, the sum of individual efforts added up to one sweet phrase for these sweaty Bears:  2015-2016 New England Champions, C Division. 

Girls’ varsity squash headed south from St. Paul’s, knowing that they had taken an historic stride for Berkshire, bringing home the school’s first squash championship, albeit a level below where we are accustomed to competing. Our seniors quickly integrated Queen’s “We Are the Champions” into the playlist, and I don’t think I have ever heard a group of teenagers exhibit as much unadulterated joy as this team belted out with each chorus. 

Four more hours behind the wheel – my last as chauffer for this particular crew – gave me plenty of time think about the strange and wonderful season that had just come to an end. Had my off-court adjustment contributed in some way to their on-court accomplishments?  Had asking them “what do you need,” rather than telling them “here’s what I need,” provided some small measure of strength or composure in the moments when they really mattered? 

We rolled back onto campus late on Saturday, at the end of a long February. One by one the girls piled out of the minibus, dragging squash bags and medals, checking their phones to initiate their re-entry into the Saturday night social sphere, and disappearing into the darkness.

“Coach,” said Madison, a three year varsity player and senior co-captain, who was last to leave the van. “I think you forgot something.” 

I turned in my chair, looking up and around for a cue, and a clue, to my oversight. Had I come up short in terms of hugs or high fives? Was the luggage compartment of the van wide open to the late winter winds?  Had I misplaced my clipboard, dropped the package of hair ties that I have learned to carry with me at all times, or left the massive championship plaque in a dark corner of the vehicle?

Amused by my confusion, Madison held out a dripping bundle of white and green microfiber. 

“The uniforms,” she laughed.  “You forgot to collect the uniforms.”   

And so I had.  But at that late hour, after that long season, it didn’t seem to matter so much.  The laundry could wait for another day.