Aahhh…Sunday. During quarantine a day spent eating a big family breakfast, watching mass on the computer and playing lots of sports outside or in the barn. Today was no different.
I want to do something a bit different tonight because it’s been on my heart in this time without sports…
So here it goes…
Outside of the quarantine…on Sunday’s we’d usually go to church, then to the gym. Bryan and I host a series of open gyms for our kids and their sports. Depending on the time of year we do volleyball and basketball…but when Sunday is over I usually have been in a gym for a minimum of three hours. Sports are our life. I love sports…and right now I miss them. So I want to share this story with you, that I wrote awhile ago (and amended today) but never posted. I’m sharing in hopes of inspiring you all to be a little more like a person I very much love and respect but also because I miss sports and I think we should be talking about them with the hope of them returning to our lives very soon.
As a player and a coach I have seen pretty much everything. From the great comeback win to the devastating loss to the selfish player making a great team average to an average player making a good team great.
I. Have. Seen. It. All. Absolutely…everything.
Sports have always been a part of my life and they are absolutely life giving to me. However, the more I am around the more I think the world of sports I have known and loved for so long is slipping away. So I want to share a story about a young lady I coached and how she inspires me to teach others to be just like her.
The phenomenon I want to talk about today is the unselfish player. We have been blessed to have coached many of these. But today I want to focus on one in particular, because I think that everyone could learn a lesson or two from her.
Her name is Taylor. Taylor came to youth camps at St. James from a young age…and to be honest, she drove me nuts. Actually…she drove me completely insane. She always talked when I was talking, bounced the ball when I asked them not to, she was “that” camper. Anyone who has coached knows what I am talking about. When she had a choice in what high school to attend she made in my opinion, the most unselfish choice a kid could make.
She chose St. James. Her unselfishness had nothing to do with our school or us coaches, but instead with her incoming freshman class. You see, Taylor was a setter and she was entering high school with another setter who was one of the most talented setters our area has ever seen. Her name is Jenna Gray. Those of you reading this that know our sport know just who I’m talking about but to make this point, Jenna was the National Player of the Year her senior year in high school, and at Stanford University has won 3 National titles and has been a 1st team All American three times straight. So when I say Jenna is good, I mean, Jenna is great. Special. Different level good.
Taylor could have gone to another school where she would have had a much better chance of setting at the Varsity level but instead she said, I want to go and play at St. James, and take my chances.
Now that Taylor was in high school she was no longer that annoying girl in camp asking to do court competitions so she could try to win them or asking what are we going to do next every 5 seconds. She now caught my attention as a girl that was unafraid of anyone or anything, while technically there were things to work on, she played so, so hard. I love people who play hard, as do all coaches. She was a good court leader and smiled and played with enthusiasm. All things coaches love…especially this one.
She was on JV as a freshman and did a great job running that court. In a desire to get to my point a little faster, Taylor played Varsity volleyball for the first time as a Junior. When she didn’t make Varsity as a sophomore she didn’t quit, she didn’t develop an attitude problem, she didn’t question my judgment, I didn’t get nasty emails from her parents questioning my decision making skills or calling me names…instead, she dug her heels in and worked harder because she wanted to be on Varsity more than anything. She continued to impress me with her work ethic and positive attitude.
When she came on our team as a junior, we weren’t sure of the role she would play as we had an All American setter already, but that year we graduated a huge class, most of whom were hitters. As coaches, we felt we needed more offense, we needed another big gun who could score points. To us, the answer was simple, we needed Jenna to hit. She was so athletic and had such a great arm it made so much sense. So what this meant for Taylor, was that she’d get to set in order to allow Jenna to hit.
The story line didn’t change for Taylor’s senior year, Jenna continued to hit for us (something she’d never done for anyone else) and Taylor would come in and set those 2 rotations for us to make that possible. Jenna hitting made our team better and gave us a better chance of having success. So really, in this story…there are two unselfish people. Taylor and Jenna. Jenna did something she’d never been asked to do before, without complaining and like a total boss. In fact, when we told Jenna she was going to hit for us, her parents sent her to a hitting camp so she could get some reps since she had never done it. Again, no one questioned us, they simply said “I trust you and I will do what I have to for the team”. These are both special people…but I digress.
At the end of the season Taylor got an opportunity to speak about her teammate Jenna. And I will never, as long as I live, forget what she said. She looked at her teammate who in all reality had really prevented her from ever being able to really shine in a position she had played her entire life and she said (roughly) the following, “Jenna, I want to thank you for being so good, for being so talented. If you weren’t you, I know that I would never have gotten the chance to play Varsity volleyball at St. James. Your skill allowed us to transform you into a hitter and because of that I got to fulfill my dream of being a Varsity setter at St. James Academy. So, thank you for being you, and for always pushing me to be my very best and for helping my dreams come true. I will always be grateful to you for that.”
There were other comments made about sling shots and grapes which gave the exchange a silly tone but I sat and listened to this young woman of 18 make this statement about a girl she competed against and with her entire volleyball career and I felt nothing but enormous pride. I cried like a baby too (shocking I know). Most girls in her situation would be jealous or envious or even…dare I say “witchy” to Jenna. This girl, instead, was grateful to her. I. about. Died. In all the years I have coached it was the most unselfish thing I’d ever heard a player speak. It’s not just that she felt that, but that she had the confidence and the self awareness to say it. So many young girls would never have been able to put those thoughts into words or the ability to admit someone else was simply better than her.
So why tell you this story? I guess, I am telling you this story because I want everyone to be a Taylor. That starts with being happy for other people’s happiness and quite frankly for teenagers and maybe even more so for said teenagers parents (heck it’s hard for everybody)…that’s hard. We can all help by celebrating other people’s successes and us adults could set an example for these young kids struggling to do what Taylor did so effortlessly. We have to remind young people and ourselves that other people’s successes do not come at our expense. Sometimes, in life, people are just better at stuff than us…and that is OK! Everyone say it with me please…it is ok if someone is better at me at something! This does not in any way negate your hard work, your effort or make you any less of a person or in this case, player. It simply does NOT!
I think we live in a society, especially a sports society that treats others success as a personal attack on ourselves. It’s gross and ugly and I don’t want to be a part of it. I want to be a part of the change I am hoping happens in sports. The unselfish, play for the love of the game kind of change. Maybe this break we’ve all been forced to take will help us lean more towards this “for the love of the game” mentality. I certainly hope so.
Last summer Jenna and Audriana Fitzmorris, another one of Taylor’s high school and college teammates were honored as the KC Sports Commission Women of the Year…and guess who was there to celebrate the heck out of them…Taylor Nill. She had genuine happiness for them and was so thrilled to be living in their moment with them. In fact, she may have been more excited than they were. Taylor, now an adult and a college graduate, continues to be Taylor.
Now, in fairness, Taylor was a good volleyball player and she brought skills and leadership to our team when we needed it the most. Taylor went on to play volleyball at the collegiate level too. Just because she wasn’t a starting setter on her high school team didn’t prevent her from doing that, in fact, I’d argue (and so would she) it was largely the reason she did get to go play college volleyball. Playing at St. James with Jenna and Fitz opened doors for her that may not have opened otherwise, and she knew it, even at 18. That made her special. And different. And…I don’t want that to be special or different I want THAT…to be the norm.
I want to change this dynamic that others success comes at our expense and the “me” mentality of sports. I want everyone to be a Taylor. Taylor is one of the most involved alumni we have. She works almost all our camps or shows up even when I didn’t ask her to…just to see if we need help. She helps organize our annual Christmas party, she genuinely cares about our players, past and present. She helps run our summer weights program. She has been out of high school now for 4 years but she knows every single one of our girls and has a vested interest in their success. Taylor now coaches collegiately at Pittsburg State as well. She continues to show her unselfishness to our program, our girls and to us coaches on a regular basis.
I am so grateful that Taylor walked into our gym and into our lives. She will forever be a part of our SJA VB family and that means something. Once you play for us, you are a part of our family forever. Taylor gets that and we are so appreciative! We don’t have to talk to you everyday after you graduate but our girls know that when they need us, we are a phone call away and we are there for whatever they need, whenever they need it. Forever.
Anyone who plays sports…I’m talking to you. It isn’t hard to impress your coach. Work hard, show up, be present when you are there, be willing to do what is asked of you without question, be a good teammate, learn your game, be a student of it and make it impossible for your coach to NOT play you.
That was the best advice my own mom gave me, because like Taylor, I was always the undersized kid who was told at times “you simply aren’t big enough” and I worked to make myself invaluable.
Every single year we tell the story about Taylor to our teams and tell them to be a Taylor and every year I think I see fewer and fewer kids across all sports and all ages take on that role. It’s a whole lot easier to be the super star because you know you are going to play and you know you are going to get accolades and awards (not that there aren’t stresses in being the go to person either, but that story is for a different day). The Taylor’s don’t get any of those accolades. But…Taylor’s name will always be on the 2015 State Championship team. She will always have those memories to cherish and those friendships to hold close to her heart. And…I’d bet if her teammates were drafting a team…they’d put Taylor on it…and as a player, I can’t think of higher praise you can receive from your own teammates.
So athletes, be a Taylor. Coaches, teach your kids to be a Taylor. Parents you too could also be a Taylor! All of you please stop chasing scholarships and accolades…play the game (or let your kid play it) because you/they love it. Play the game because you have something to offer the game, not the other way around.
Be a Taylor. You won’t regret it.
On the Left my 40th birthday party with some of our alum, special girls…all of them! On the Right Taylor and I at her HS graduation!
Jenna and Taylor…love these photos so much…bring back so many happy memories of great people and good times!
Celebration pictures are my most favorite!
Goobers…and babies…so young!
Our kids are so blessed to grow up with these girls as their big sisters!
Pretty sure Taylor was impersonating me at a pep assembly. I was pregnant with Fletcher at the time. Mister and Taylor!