The Billerica White Sox had our first practice on Saturday, and it was awesome.
- I’m excited to coach – as excited as the kids are to play, and so we met each other with equal enthusiasm
- I do my homework – I read the manuals, and I’m still researching some of the most successful programs in the country
- I pay attention at work
I earn my living as a marketer and fundraiser for non-profit social work organization called The Life is Good Kids Foundation. It started in 1989 as a grassroots organization lead by Steve Gross, a clinical social worker who’s since become a leader in the field of early childhood trauma response. Throughout his work, Steve realized that in order to make a lasting positive difference in the lives of children, you also had to make serious and lasting investments in the men and women who dedicate their careers to caring for them.
So, for more than 25 years now, the Foundation’s been offering personal and professional development to teachers, social workers, early life specialists, therapist, counselors, and coaches. We help childcare organizations build safe, loving, and joyful environments for kids to learn, play, and heal.
Now, since signing on with the Foundation just over a year ago, I’ve felt like I’ve had a pretty good handle on what our program does, and how our social workers and program staff deliver workshops, retreats, courses, and exercises…but truth be told, I didn’t totally get it until I put what I’ve learned into practice on the field.
When the 10 Billerica White Sox tee-ball players showed up to play late Saturday afternoon, I now knew that the only important thing here, was to make sure that all of these kids felt good about being here. I knew I needed to make every kid – regardless of ability or even interest – feel comfortable and relaxed, so that they each could in fact engage, learn, and play.
So, the first thing we did was a high-energy teamwork game – called “Squirrels and Nuts.” The kiddos were the “squirrels”, and the “nuts” were the Wiffle balls Ken (my husband and assistant coach) and I scattered all over the infield.
The object: gather all of the nuts and put them back at home plate.
The catch: if a coach tags you, you’re frozen – if a teammate tags you, you’re unfrozen.
How to win: get all the nuts and all the squirrels back home.
The kids LOVED being chased. They loved being called squirrels. They loved working together. See, the Foundation reminded me that when kids are playing (learning), it’s not about ups and outs – it’s about getting together to get to the really big wins.
After three rounds of this, they (and the coaches) needed a water break. That’s when I addressed our score board – because look, part of why kids love to play is keeping score. Which is great, the Foundation taught me, as long as you consider what you’re scoring.
I told our team that the White Sox Scoreboard (a DIY project of MDF & chalkboard paint) would be tracking “team runs.”
“Every time I hear someone on our team tell someone else, ‘good job,’ or ‘nice try,’ or ‘keep it up,’ and even just a good ole ‘Let’s Go White Sox,’ we earn another team run on our scoreboard,” I explained. “Every time we do good team listening, we earn another team run on our scoreboard. Every time we try hard or learn something new, we earn another team run on our scoreboard. Sound good?”
Agreement was unanimous.
“And every practice and every game we earn 10 runs, we unlock a new game, you all in?”
They were all totally in.
So, we went on to learn how to grip and throw a ball, and run the bases. And then, kind of before any of us knew it, it was time to check our scoreboard.
We won, and a secret parachute game was unlocked.
Every kid on the team left with a better understanding of teamwork, how to properly grip, aim and throw a ball, and how to run the bases. But, way more importantly, every kid left feeling that they could do this, that this was fun, and that they couldn’t wait to come back.
And, truth be told their coaches felt the same way.
When practice wrapped one player’s father made his way over to me.
“I gotta tell you,” he said. “That was amazing. You ran that brilliantly. It was so good to see our son so engaged and into it, really into it. Never losing interest. That means a lot. Thank you and we’re here to help. Whatever you need.”
Another team parent, without even being asked, helped us pack up the field and get everything back in the shed.
And I think by the end, the kids, the parents, and the coaches left all feeling a little bit more connected.
And that’s when I finally and completely felt the importance of social work – of helping us (all of us) discover and rediscover how to positively, authentically, and compassionately connect.
That way we can all feel good about being a squirrel just trying, getting, and sharing all those nuts.