Learning life skills through sports

This article appears in the Notes from the Field feature series. View the full series.
From left, Kia, Laura and me, the coaches of the Cristo Rey Boston High School softball team. (Provided photo)

Boston, Massachusetts — Notes from the Field includes reports from young women volunteering in ministries of Catholic sisters. A partnership with Catholic Volunteer Network, the project began in the summer of 2015 This is our third round of bloggers: Brenna Neimanis is a Good Shepherd Volunteer at a juvenile justice residential detention facility serving adolescent girls in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Kerry DiNardo is a Notre Dame Mission Volunteer AmeriCorps member serving at a Cristo Rey school in Boston.

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I've been playing sports ever since I can remember. I spent every waking minute that I wasn't in school on the softball or soccer fields and volleyball or basketball courts. These are the places I learned so many lessons and life skills that I still carry with me today: self-confidence, teamwork, commitment, and more.

Some of my best memories from school involve sports. I also had many positive experiences with my coaches over the years. So when I began working in a high school, it was a natural fit for me to start coaching.

I coached softball for the first time during the 2015 season. One of the volunteers from last year, Kia, and I were the assistants to Laura, the head softball coach and one of the math teachers.

Since it was the first time any of us had coached a sport, we were deliberate about deciding the kinds of messages we wanted to send to the girls about our team and how it would operate.

A Christo Rey Boston High School pitcher winds up for the pitch during one of the team's games this season. (Provided photo)

At our school, it isn't common for many girls to have played sports growing up. This was the first time a lot of the girls had touched a bat, so we knew we needed to start with the basics. There had been a team at the school, but a lot of the players had graduated. So we started fresh: three seniors who had played before and a whole lot of raw talent.

We decided we wanted to teach the girls confidence in themselves and in our team as a whole. We wanted them to understand how they could use their bodies for powerful things and that there is more to being healthy than just looking good. We hoped that they could see value in the commitment we all made to the team and the improvements we would achieve.

It was also the first time many of the girls were on any kind of team. We began to teach them that they are not only accountable to themselves but to their teammates as well. We showed them how they affect the team if they choose not to go to practice or a game — or if they don't have the grades to play. If one of us suffers, we noted, we all suffer.

One thing I love about coaching is the relationships built outside of the school building and school day. Though we have high expectations for the girls, the environment at softball is more relaxed than the academic environment, and we are able to grow with the girls as we teach them the sport.

We use so many things that happen in practice as learning moments for the girls. We focus not only on softball skills, but also on the life skills sports can teach. These are things they can take with them throughout their lives.

As the 2015 season progressed, we saw improvements day by day. At the final game, our Senior Day at which we honored our three seniors, we got our first Cristo Rey Boston softball win! I will never forget that first win and the contagious feeling of pure joy in the girls and us coaches. It was a long-fought game against our school rivals. In the end, we came out on top, and we all were thrilled.

Everyone was excited after our first win of the 2015 season. (Provided photo)

We have high expectations for the girls, and in turn, they expect a lot from themselves. Being on the team is a big commitment, as we have either a practice or a game five or sometimes even six days a week. The schedule also has to factor in work days for the students, as most students work at their placements in the Corporate Work Study Program until 5 p.m. once or twice a week. This means they aren't able to make practices or games on their work days.

This is a lot to balance for the girls, who also have to factor in family obligations, jobs they have outside of the work-study program, and schoolwork. They must have satisfactory grades in order to play. This teaches the students responsibility and scheduling. They need to figure out when they'll complete work and maximize their time so they get everything done and are able to fulfill all of their commitments.

This year, we are able to build on our successes from last year and grow even more as a team while still reminding ourselves of the "small wins" we strive for: catching outfield pop flies or hitting a home run. We aren't a team that's going to be undefeated overnight. Instead of having that goal in our minds as we go through the day-to-day, we prompt the girls to focus on what strides we have made since the beginning of last season, when some of the girls picked up a bat for the very first time.

[Kerry DiNardo is a Notre Dame Mission Volunteer AmeriCorps member in her second year of service at Cristo Rey Boston High School, where she works in the Student Life Office.]

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