It was a typically cold December morning and Emily was my last hitting lesson for the day. Immediately, I noticed she wasn’t wearing her normal happy. Usually, she bounced with every step and offered a joke with a bright smile each time she entered the hitting facility – but not on this day.
Also, I was struck by the absence of her parents, so I asked. She dropped her head and mumbled something about a fight.
Emily dropped her bat bag and took a seat upon a bench. I sat along beside her and encouraged her to talk.
Through tears, Emily let it all spill out. Years of frustration and a feeling of inadequacy stemming from her own perceived failures to meet the expectations of others had her reeling. By the time she finished talking, I felt a pit fully-formed in my stomach. My heart broke as I listened to what she had been keeping to herself.
Emily had been my hitting student since before she had started playing for her high school team. Like many of my students, she was serious about getting better, she never missed a lesson. Faithfully, her parents accompanied her each week to participate and see her progress.
Emily was a good hitter – a good student. Her parents were kind and supportive. Yet, on this day, Emily was sobbing.
She had started the conversation with a strong statement - “I don’t want to play in college.”
Emily was now a junior in high school and playing in college had seemed logical to her parents and those around her given her interest in lessons, her level of talent, and her on-field achievements.
She revealed to me that she had informed her parents that morning and they seemed confused and upset about the revelation. Adding to the difficulty, it crushed her to feel that she had let her parents down, which was precisely the reason she had hidden her thoughts for so long.
I asked Emily if she enjoyed playing softball and she quickly replied, “Not anymore.”
My heart broke a little more for her.
Emily explained she had only attended lessons to simply get better because playing was fun. Then when she started feeling as if others were setting her goals and establishing expectations, the fun had disappeared.
What was supposed to be a 30-minute hitting lesson turned into an hour listening session. When Emily left after having opened up to me, I felt guilty for possibly contributing to her feelings.
Like I had done with most of my students, I had occasionally spoken to her about schools she might be interested in attending and the necessary steps she would need to take to earn a spot on a college softball roster. Little did I know, Emily had other ideas and what I thought were beneficial words, instead had only increased her level of stress.
Emily left that day a little undecided about what to do next. I encouraged her to take a break from softball. She nodded with a reluctant smile but seemed instantly relieved.
A short time after Emily and I had spoken, her parents stopped by the hitting facility to meet with me. They were looking for help and informed me that Emily was no longer going to do lessons and had decided to quit her travel team.
They were distraught about Emily’s decisions. From their perspective, they had invested lots of time and money into seeing their daughter develop into a fantastic softball player. They had always assumed she would earn a scholarship, lessen the financial burden of college, and enjoy herself playing at a high level. Now, Emily's words and actions were communicating a different plan.
It was obvious to me they were hurting, too.
All around, there had been a total misunderstanding as to what playing softball meant to Emily – and now she had quit.
Nobody had ever taken the time to ask her what she wanted to do – so she bottled it up inside.
It was an unfortunate situation that could have been averted had those around Emily (me included) taken more of an interest in what she wanted rather than what they wanted for her.
None of it was ill-intended. In fact, just the opposite. Assuming a talented and dedicated player would desire to play beyond high school is a reasonable assumption. Her parents were doing all they could to support what they thought was her dream. I was trying to educate her on the process and offering to reach out to coaches on her behalf. Yet, we had failed to understand what Emily wanted.
Her parents sought my advice on what they should do next. They considered making her play the summer for her club team to which they had already committed and paid expensive team fees. I encouraged them to consider how that might make things worse.
My advice was simple. Leave her alone. Let her decide. Don’t talk about softball – don’t go to any games – stay away from lessons – hide the bat in a closet and forget about it. Love your daughter and support her.
Give it six months and maybe she would come back to it. If she doesn't, then as painful as that might be, we need to respect her decisions and let her chart her own path.
I offered, “Softball is what your daughter does, but it’s not who she is. You love the idea that your daughter plays softball, but you love your daughter more. Let her be who she wants to be.”
Tearfully, they agreed.
More than six months had passed before my phone buzzed with a message – it was Emily.
The text read, “Can you fit me in for a hitting lesson?”
I smiled before thumbing a response.
In late-July, when Emily came back to the facility, she did so with a bounce and a smile, her parents strolling in right behind her – just like old times.
Emily told me that having time away from the game had made her miss it and she now realized how special the opportunity was for her to play. Because of that, she had decided she wanted to play in college having realized the window of opportunity was small and would someday be closed.
Emily played all four years in college. Starting as a freshman and playing virtually every inning in her career - her parents in attendance each weekend.
Emily’s story is not unlike others who I’ve encountered during my time in the game. Before Emily, I had overlooked the simple fact that many athletes are playing just because they love the game. There’s no requirement that one must want to play in college and some might be turned off by the pressure to do so.
Through all of it, I learned never to assume every athlete who takes hitting lessons or attends my camps have desires to play in college. As a result, I’ve become a better hitting coach who centers instruction around an athlete’s goals rather than an assumed goal.
And while my camps are staffed with college coaches, the format is now focused on an athlete’s overall experience so that they can have fun while also learning to improve their skills through working with top college coaches. In turn, as a byproduct, maybe the atmosphere will strike a chord with an athlete, light a fire within them, and allow them to make connections with college coaches.
I truly hope that's the case - as I personally think it’s a valuable experience and a unique opportunity for any athlete who loves the sport they play to have the opportunity to play beyond high school.
Hopefully, if we can do a better job at understanding our athletes, clearly communicating with them, listening to their desires, relieving some of their pressures, while maintaining reasonable expectations, and avoiding imposing our own goals, just maybe we can get more athletes interested in playing the sport they love in college – just as Emily ultimately decided to do.
Jerrad Hardin is a championship coach who has spent more than two decades bridging the gap between college coaches and athletes. His nationwide camps are widely-considered the top softball camps available for athletes who want to improve their skills and showcase them with college coaches. To find a location near you, please visit: www.jerradhardin.com
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