When I was a kid, Mum coached our local country netball team. When we started, she had no idea what she was doing. She’d never played netball herself and I remember her standing on the sidelines with a rulebook, desperately trying to work out the game while moving us around the court.
It’s a strange coincidence then that soon after Mum died last year I became the coach of my daughter’s netball team. Like my mother, I didn’t choose coaching. In fact I spent weeks trying to talk other people into doing it. It wasn’t that I didn’t know the rules, because I’d played netball for years. It was actually the terrifying thought of coaching a bunch of eight-year-old girls, one of them being my daughter.
Around the time I was trying to decide if I should coach, I was clearing out some of my mother’s things when I found a photograph of my netball team from 1982. I was twelve, tall and slim with a shiny-haired ponytail and a grin from ear to ear, one hand desperately touching the small golden trophy, trying to claim my part in the game that had seen us win our first premiership. Mum was off to the side, her hair in the same style she wore for most of my childhood, wearing a grin equal to my own.
Finding that photograph was the decider. If she could coach, with no idea of the game, and no more experience of wielding authority than I had, then surely I could too. Suddenly it was no longer about coaching. It was about preserving the legacy of her as a mother. Since she’d died, so much of my grief was imbedded in thoughts of my childhood. I wasn’t only grieving the loss of my mother, I was somehow saying goodbye to who I was as a child. If I couldn’t remember whether I’d had measles, or what boy I loved when I was fifteen, or the first item of clothing I bought with my own money, then nobody else was around to remember it either. Her death had taken all that with it. And somehow by becoming a coach like she did, I was saving one small thing from my childhood and making it live again.
But I was still terrified. So terrified I convinced another mother, a friend, and an old state netball player, to join me on the sidelines with a whistle each Tuesday night for training. The first few weeks were messy. We were all breaking each other in. And I kept sensing my mother’s ghost somewhere off to the side, grinning as I tried to explain how to defend without hurting your opponent.
What I never expected was to actually enjoy it. Not only has it given me a rare opportunity to involve myself in my daughter’s life, but it’s also provided me an incredible insight into the dynamics of her group of friends. The beautiful bunch of spirited and loving girls who come along to training every week, more for the snacks sometimes than the ball drills, who reveal all sorts of things I would never be privileged to hear about were it not for this weird beast called team sport.
It’s the first time they’ve played a team sport, and it’s created this knot of friendship that feels strong and real. Most weeks at training we have extras. Girls who want to join in, just for the fun of it, just for the game. It’s like a little spider web of good feeling. We are a motley crew. Mismatched jumpers. Leggings of all shapes and sizes. There are no uniform hoodies with names printed on the back like some of our opposition. But no matter how much they muck around at training, having water fights, lying in the rain, and running off to play on the monkey bars, they all come along on Saturdays at 8am charged and ready to play. They’ve even written their own theme song.
Last week my daughter broke it to me that I wasn’t much of a coach. That instead of coach, she calls me the hugger. And the other mum is the real coach. She blows her whistle and teaches them rules. Sews up the bibs when they are getting ratty.
At first, I took offence. But then I realised she was right. It is all the emotional stuff I like. Bucking them up if they have a bad day. Whispering encouragement. Sorting out fights.
Just like my Mum did.
How strange that while she was living, I was so desperate to take my own path as a mother, to carve out our differences. And now that she’s gone, I’m chasing all the similarities in an attempt to keep her memory alive.
While my daughter doesn’t have a long shiny ponytail like I did, she does have the same furious flashes of anger on her face if I dare to yell something out when she’s on court, and she has fallen in love with playing the same position I loved when I was her age.
So we haven’t gone far. From my Mum to me. I wonder if the Koalas will one day win a premiership and if my daughter will ever find herself becoming an accidental coach too. And if she does, what strange lessons she will take from it?