The holiday season is rife with rituals for the Coach Black family. Our Christmas Eve tradition is pizza and wings, after which we open presents with our godparents. We also spend an hour or so untangling strings of lights that, brand new, would have cost about a dollar. My favorite holiday ritual is when my father and I go and hunt Christmas trees.
Christmas trees have a sixty sense and can be very elusive this time of the year. It is very important to pick a target-rich environment to start your search. We chose Hitchie’s place because we knew the odds would be with us. Stalking down the right tree to accentuate our home does not happen easily. The hunt starts with a half mile hike up to the top of the hill where Hitchie has been growing trees for the past ten years or so. Once we reach the Promised Land we carefully evaluate the pickings, making sure to poke, prod, and smell for the perfect one. We then narrow the crop to a handful of prime candidates. The top three or so are then subjected to the final test: They are given the look of snake-eyed concentration. This is the most important part of the hunt and something I have been perfecting since my youth. You have to stand a good distance away then squint, leaving your eyes open just enough to see. When you go snake-eyed, the right tree will choose you. The right girth and height become glowingly apparent. Snake-eyed concentration is a technique that I picked up from Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man. The Christmas tree hunt is something that I have done to fill my role as a male in my family.
Coach Black by the family Christmas Tree
Tree hunting doesn’t have much to do with swimming but it is the ritual of it that I have taken away as a life lesson. I am blessed with having a close family. We do almost everything together. I think that for the success of a team as a whole, each member needs to feel like he or she is part of an extended family. Like the Christmas tree hunting for me, I want the sprinters to take pride in filling their role on the team. If everyone is fulfilling their role, then they will run like a well oiled machine.
To instill that sense of cohesion among the sprinters we have our own rites and rituals, like tree hunting. Last season, as a joke, Mr. Green made a bunch of T-shirts for the sprint lane. He gave them out to everyone who swam in the group to make them feel like one of the group. It was a small gesture but gave everyone in the group a sense of identity. This year we have been trying to carry on the tradition but have added a wrinkle. The shirts this year are being earned through performance in practice or in a meet. By the end of the season everyone in the group will have one because I wouldn’t want the shirts to be used to exclude anyone who has been a part of the group.
Coach Black’s family… see the resemblance?
Two of my female swimmers have earned their shirts in the first semester of the season. Ms. White and Ms. Mauve both have earned their right to be in the group, but they have done it in different ways. Ms White has and will always be one of the most fun athletes I have ever worked with. She is unquestionably the most talented athlete in the group. She does not ever let that serve as a deterrent in achieving her goals. If anything, she figures she must work harder than everyone else to get to where she wants to be. It is because of her unflagging determination in practice that she received her shirt and induction into being one of the group. Ms Mauve earned her shirt because of her performance throughout the semester. At the final meet of the semester she went lifetime bests in two events. She is only a freshman and is stepping up to fill the void left by last year’s seniors. She hopes to score points in two individual events and two relays at league championships. Now her mission for the second semester is to start talking. To say that she is shy would be making her sound more extroverted than she is.
There is a bit of a ceremony that goes with earning the shirt, kind of like the crowning of a kind or queen. The recipient of this highly prestigious award has to stand dignified in front of the group. As he or she stands there, I let everyone know what meritorious services they have performed to earn the shirt. It is a joyous and slightly embarrassing experience for everyone who gets to go through it. After they are presented with their new shirts they have to model them for everyone in the group. The last part of the crowning is that they have to swim the entire warm up with the shirt on.
Next week I will be writing from sunny southern Florida where we will be on our annual team training trip. It is a hardship that I have had to suffer through with coaching college swimming. I have to go to sub-tropical Florida for 8 to 10 days in early January. I much prefer staying in the dredges of a solid northeast winter, but this is something that I am willing to go through for the good of the team. While we are on our training trip it is the one time of the season that the athletes on our team get to be just athletes for a week. They can practice twice a day without having to do homework or go to class in between.
Happy Holidays, Everyone!