X’s and O’s: the playbook of a coach’s wife

Posted on Posted in Teaching Moments

Dear Sisters In The Shadows,

I wrote an ode to you some weeks ago (http://wp.me/p6L8u0-eV) because I felt called to speak for those who may not feel that they have permission to speak or maybe those who are just too dang tired to open their mouths to say a word.  People from all walks of life, all races, all genders, and all nationalities live in the shadows and go about their daily tasks without being noticed or rewarded for the things they do to support others.  My hope is that I encourage and empower those who are living that life and that I enlighten others who neglect to consider the shadow dwellers as they move through life.

I recently celebrated my 50th birthday!  I found reaching that milestone in my life to be a very liberating experience.  I have heard some people say that they dreaded turning 50, but for me I saw the promise, the potential, and the benefits of being a woman who knew what she liked, what she wanted, and what she didn’t need to spend her time doing or pretending she liked doing.  The sprinkles of gray in my hair resulted from seasons of life experiences that I intend to use to bless the lives of others.  How can you not be excited about the life at 50?!

While there was much to be excited about, the year that lead to the big 5-0 was filled with reflective thoughts on the things I learned over the years.  As I reflected on my adult life, I realized many of the decisions I made about my career, my social circles, my children, and my extended family were influenced by the game of football.   I call it a game, but as my husband moved from being a college athlete to a little league coach to a coach in the National Football League, I found that the game felt more like a business.  Honestly, the regimented customs associated with all levels of the game made it feel formal to me and not like a game that kids play.  It felt abnormal for me a shadow dweller whose daily responsibilities didn’t usually allow for a regimented schedule like the practices and team meetings required by the football schedule.  Heck, the kids didn’t get hungry or need a snack at the same time every day and I couldn’t regulate potty training.  I found that the laundry and dishes didn’t seem to care about my schedule either.  As a coach’s wife, my normal seemed very abnormal as I watched other families participate in their family and community rituals.  I often had to explain that those holidays and community events fell on work days for my significant other.  It seemed quite abnormal to teach my children how not to discuss their father’s job because I didn’t want his job to define them or their visions of the lives they would live.  Today, I dedicate this blog post to all of us who are beginning a new football season in a world that can only become normal for those of us who live in the shadows of the game.

Being married to a man who loves the game offered me the chance to enjoy some of the most amazing victories in my life and to deal with some of the greatest challenges in my life often without the kind of support most families would expect.  There were times when the game that has entertained millions has been an amazing burden for me and others who do our damnedest to support the ones we love without injuring the egos of the people they work with and for.  And we strive not to negatively impacting the brand they all represent when we make our cameo appearances on behalf of and in support of the team.  We who live in the shadows take this responsibility seriously and we generally perform our roles seamlessly while balancing kids, the house, the pets, the family, the neighbors’ kids, our relationships, and those community obligations we choose to support in addition to those chosen by the ball club.  It can sometimes be a daunting task and we pretty much go unnoticed and misunderstood.  If this is your story, congratulations for being so awesome!

People love to tell me how I knew what I was getting myself into when I married a football coach.  Well, smarty pants people, I didn’t.  I met my coach when we were in college and I believed I was marrying a man who would become a teacher and maybe coach high school football.  I believed we would live in the south where he would teach and I would pursue my career goals.  I thought that we would be driving distance from our families and enjoy the pleasures and normalcy of eight to five jobs worked by people who live in small town USA.  Never did I expect to live in many cities and never in a city with family.  I never thought that I would be forced to build support villages for me and my children more than a few times during our marriage.  I never expected my husband to have a job that would tell the world when he was hired and fired.  I certainly never expected to see his name scrolling along the ticker on ESPN because he had been “released” from his duties at a ball club.  So much for the idea of keeping our family affairs private.  Who would expect a neighbor to think that it was a good idea to leave a copy of the local paper on the porch with your husband’s name and salary circled in red ink? Like I said, I had no idea what I was signing up for when I married a man who had a calling to be a football coach.  I do believe it was a calling on his life because who would choose this lifestyle? Who would choose the physical, emotional, and time demands that come with living this life?

I have been attached to the coach and hence the business of football for 27 plus years.  As a coaching family, we experienced life and family in ways that most people will never experience them.  Some of the best times we experienced were direct results of successful seasons by the team.  I learned through my life in football that timing is really everything.  Those exciting times happened because the team was ready and prepared to take advantage of opportunities when those  opportunities presented.  We celebrated winning a Super Bowl. We went to Pro Bowls and the Japan game.  We experienced winning seasons with Hall of Fame coaches and players and hung out with some folks socially who I never imagined would invite me into their spaces all those years ago when this journey began.  I am grateful for those experiences and the life lessons I learned from the time spent with each team in every city during every season.  I am also thankful that I saw the big picture and recognized that my success as a shadow dweller was a valuable contribution to the success of each team.  The success I speak about is not just winning and losing games.  I mean success in terms of the impact on individuals and communities by the teams.  I have always appreciated Jim Irsay for his efforts to make everyone in his organization feel valued and respected, including the coaches’ wives.  The sad part to me is that there were many women married to or attached to men in the game who never understood their value as supporters operating in the shadows.  When you don’t recognize that your work and contributions are valuable, your identity can become that of the person in whose shadow you reside.  When your identity melds into that of a person or organization you don’t control, you fail to dream and develop yourself to live out your purpose and calling.  Finding the way to do that without damaging the fragile relationships in the business and without looking like you are not supportive of the coach you love can be tough.  Like community building, this process is complex and tough, but necessary work for you and your family.

My advice to folks married to the game of football (or any other profession that is not cutting the check in your name directly) is to protect your heart and your identity.  Establish at least one thing that is your own because you choose it and not because someone else thinks that it would be good for you.  Often there is an expectation that you will use your time, energy, and other resources to support the game even when you don’t feel that the game supports you and your family.  Saying this out loud almost feels like blasphemy which seems crazy to me, but that inclination not to speak and to control impulsive actions is a learned behavior taught by years in the game.  It is a transferrable skill to other situations, but it feels weird to need to exercise it in the business with which you have developed such intimacy.  So, even if you can’t say everything you think out loud, you can make decisions about how much of you and your resources you share.  You should give yourself permission to make those decisions in order to protect your heart, your identity, and your household budget.

You should find at least one friend who has no idea when the team plays.  Find a friend who does not work for the team, but who does understand why your husband is rarely with you and kids at church or the cookout or the kids’ activities.  Those friends will understand why you video tape your kids’ games while other folks look at you like you are a pageant mom obsessed with your amazingly awesome kids when all you really want is to provide an opportunity to keep their dad connected.  (As an aside, I also advise you to have that friend do the taping because I could never keep the camera on my kids when they did something exciting during their performances.  I have often recorded myself saying, “Oh shoot, I missed it!”)

Become comfortable with his absence because it teaches your children to be secure with the environment and the family structure.  Embrace the quiet of the space you have when he is gone and the kids are asleep.  Use that time for reflection and dreaming so that you don’t forget how to dream and how to keep your goals alive in your heart and mind until that moment when the nest is empty.  Keep your goals and dreams alive until that moment that you just decide that your dreams and your voice matter enough to challenge the game to make room for you and to support you in your decision to live out loud in well lit places.  Spend your alone time envisioning the day when you will expect others to give life to you in the same way that you breathed breaths of life into the business of football. The positivity will keep away the negativity.  There is scriptural support for the idea that darkness can’t live where there is light and you will need the light in order to experience success in this business.

I honestly believe that those of us who live in the shadows of the game believe in the work that our coaches do every day of every season and every off season.  We all understand that this is more than teaching X’s and O’s and the science of football.  I think that we continue to define our lives by seasons and where we lived when certain life events happened because we know that the work that we support enables the game to raise boys to men.  We know that the game provides memorable experiences that bond families, friends, and communities.  For some folks it’s entertainment, but for us it’s life.

Because it is your life, you should not make it a habit to discuss the team with other folks like it is your responsibility to justify game day decisions by the coaching staff.  Additionally, you should instruct your children to limit their talk about the team to prevent them from the burden of being identified as a coaches’ kids every place they go.  If you don’t provide such guidance to your children, they might hear some of the good after some of the games, but more likely than not they will hear all of the negative every week of every season you live in that city.  This odd phenomenon of people wanting to shower your children with negativity can make them dread school every Monday morning.  Your family’s relationship to football can never be understood by a person who only sees the game for its entertainment value.  Those folks will never feel the literal impact of wins, losses, and institutional decisions based on an evaluation of the fruits of your coach’s labor.  Therefore, you ought not get your heart caught up in debates with them about football and you should expect them to express their empathy and understanding with the team when your husband gets fired.  They will move on to the next very quickly while you are struggling to figure out the next move, the next schools, and how to tie up the loose ends in the city you are leaving.

The experiences with some of the fans and the decisions of some in the game have taught me to focus on my calling to serve and to learn from the players to have “a short memory.”  You will be forced to learn not to make business decisions personal.  You will be forced to learn how to cheer for the team you cheered against last season.  You may even learn how to cheer for the team you knew very little about last season in a city you never wanted to call home.  If you are lucky, you will learn how to maintain a cool, level head like an athlete under pressure to execute a two-minute drill flawlessly in order to score and win a game.  Most families in the game understand the fragile nature of the business and how the outcomes can directly impact where they live, what city their family calls home, and their emotional and financial stability.  Since you probably won’t ever be asked to come into the locker room to deliver a pregame speech, or step into a game to take a snap, or to come study the game in a team meeting, you need to figure out how not to let the game control your every thought and action.

Stop trying to memorize the schedules for every single thing they do.  Stop trying to remember every coach’s assignments and the hometowns of every player.  Stop getting mad if they don’t tell you something before the media reports it.  On the other hand, it might be a good idea to start being concerned about the ramifications of the names of your children being published in the online media guide.  Start being concerned about how you will spend the time that your coach is off work.  Start being concerned about how you will redecorate when he ain’t home to give you his two cents about color schemes and furnishings.  Start worrying about how you will use your time to do one thing that feeds your passions.  I hope that this blog post inspires you to believe that you can operate as a shadow dweller in the game and simultaneously reward yourself by promoting one personal goal or accomplishing one task that enhances you personally.  There is no rule that says you must not have an experience in the light while you busy yourself in the shadows of the game.

I write and speak from a place of wanting others to live more fully and more deeply because of my experiences living the game. We have but one time to do this thing called life and we need to do it the best way we can figure out how. I charge you and myself to do it with purpose, with passion, and without limiting our potential. Work on developing your God given gifts and those of your children and let that giftedness be the driving force and not an opinion of another person about what your or their perceived goodness might be. When I write and speak about leadership and the potential of excellent villages, I enter a realm of satisfaction that only those things provides me. That is how life works when you are living your passion.  That is what I see in the eyes and movements of the coach when he’s in the presence of the players.  He does not have that same feeling when we watch Tiny House episodes and my favorite shows on HGTV and I don’t have my most pleasurable moments in life sitting on bleachers watching him coach.  So, figure out your thing and spend some time doing that thing.  Then, make him sit on the hard butt bleachers with squirmy kids for a few hours watching you do your thing.

Finding your place in the light will empower you and make you less concerned with all the things happening in the game that you have no control over.  You might even find that you and your kids will become champions of the concept of being a fan of a game that your coach loves.  I have studied fans in my time at games and here are a couple of things I have learned from fans that that might make your life in the game more tolerable and hopefully make you pursue the idea of you and your kids moving closer to the light:

Always stay supportive of the team regardless of the roster or the weather.

Loyal fans attend the game then separate from the emotion of the game when they leave so that they can get on with the business of accomplishing things that have nothing to do with the game.

And finally, the fans have taught me that when I think my guy has forgotten his name, he always responds to, “Hey, Coach.”

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