When my daughters were 6 and 7, I volunteered to coach their recreational soccer teams. I knew little about soccer, but neither did most of the parent coaches. I read books about coaching youth soccer; sat in on local high school practices; attended a Saturday morning clinic put on by a local college coach, who told us to bring a ball. I had decent eye-hand coordination, but eye-foot coordination was another thing. I learned some simple skills, some simple drills, and a valuable piece of advice: avoid lines in practice.
Players need to be constantly engaged, not waiting their turn. Within a couple of seasons, I ran engaging practices that made the team better and the practices fun. Each year we qualified for the tournament and always won our first-round game. My goal in the playoffs was to extend the season, to keep us playing and practicing as long as possible. So, one fall after losing in the third round of the season-ending tournament, I was gratified when 9-year-old Carly asked, “Are we practicing Monday, Coach?”
Five weeks ago, my golf partner and I were 22½ points behind the second-half leaders in our 20-team league. We’d performed miserably in the first half of the year, never sniffing first place. The second half looked to be a repeat of the first half. This was confirmed at the beginning of August by Lou, our league commissioner. Besides posting scores and stats the day after each week’s Thursday competition, Lou writes a narrative encapsulating the results as he sees them. On Aug. 1, he’d written that “the pace has slowed for the top three teams and they appear to be breezing” toward the finish line. We were not one of those top three teams. Four weeks later, though, he wrote this:
What did Yogi Berra used to say? It ain't over until it's over. Well, Team 5 have found that out as Team 11 (The Johns) [that’s what Lou has dubbed us and how everyone now refers to us] come roaring down the stretch to gain the 6.5 points that they were down to finish in a dead heat for the second-half championship. These two teams will have to square off in a nine-hole match to determine the second-half championship so that that winner can then square off against Team 18 in another nine-hole match to determine the overall champion of our league.
In the interim weeks, we’d won every match, three of them by relatively large margins. Two weeks from the end of the second half, we’d become part of Lou’s narrative. We were in the conversation. Neither of us talked about our surge, but we could feel it. What looked like an opaque obstacle a month earlier had become a glimmer of hope. When we found out we were in a second-half playoff to get into a championship playoff, I vowed to myself that I’d practice every day until the decisive match. (I found out later that my partner vowed the same thing.)
I live within a couple of miles of a great practice facility. I buy a 10-practice punch card for about $100 and can practice all day if I want to (or until the point of diminishing returns). I like to practice. I’ve made it fun for myself. I hit 30/60/90 shots to warm up, some with a medium trajectory, some with a high trajectory. I hit pitch shots off tight lies until I’m clipping the shots with little divot and soft landings. I hit full shots to different targets until I’m confident in my swing. I might hit a few sand shots, always a bunch of chips until I find a tempo, followed by some putts, which mirror that chipping tempo. Sometimes I challenge myself to get up and down more times than I did the previous practice. Other times I experiment with different clubs from different lies.
So, when we found out we’d made this playoff, I was elated. Not only because we’d recorded an unprecedented comeback and gotten into the first pre-championship playoff in league history, but because we’d extended our season. We were still in it. We had a chance. Had we not gotten to this point, yes, we’d still be golfing. Our league follows the 19-week competition with a scramble and then a silly season with different games each week until the time change – a lot of low-pressure fun – but it’s not the meaningful team-versus-team match play that drives us from April to August. We had something to practice for, something meaningful.
I wish I could say that we won the playoff, that we’d extended our season even further, that we still had something to practice for. We each beat our man by a stroke, but in a handicap league in which we happened to be giving two strokes a player, one stroke isn’t enough. And so, for now, I have to live with the response I’d given Carly all those years ago. “I’m really glad you like to practice, but this season’s over. See you in the spring.”
John Gaughan, 65, is a retired English teacher who lives in Fairfield, Ohio, and carries a 10 handicap. He coaches the junior-varsity girls team at Mercy McAuley High School in Cincinnati. Gaughan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.