I learned that being different can be normal.
I recently visited UC Berkeley as an admitted Ph.D. student to the sociology department. In many ways, I finally got to be myself. I got to be curious, geek out, and light up when talking about men and masculinity in the workplace—my greatest research interest (currently.)
But I knew I was an outsider.
I received my undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and worked as a technology consultant for five years. I’m currently studying massage therapy and about to train for a bodybuilding competition. Formally, sociology doesn’t exist in my past. Oh, and did I mention that I’m a woman?
It’s not the first time I’ve been an outsider, and it certainly won’t be the last. It’s an uncomfortable feeling but not unfamiliar. In fact, it’s starting to become the feeling I get when I know I’m in the right place…
So how did this happen?
It happened during middle school soccer.
One of the happiest moments of my life was when my name was called to start at the right midfield position on the A team in seventh- and eighth-grade soccer. It was the first game of the season, and I was one of five, seventh graders to have made the team—not to mention, I was the only girl. In my journal at the time, I couldn’t write about anything else but soccer; it was my obsession, my world.
When I think back to that time, I remember the smell of fall, of crunchy leaves and freshly cut grass. I remember how anxious I would get before running a mile for time. I remember running through the woods around the campus perimeter. I remember what it felt like to play in the pouring rain and slosh in the mud. I remember lying down on my bed at home after practice, exhausted but exhilarated.
I remember all the normal things because I felt normal. For that, I want to thank my coach.
Mr. McDermott was the middle school science teacher and the varsity high school lacrosse coach. But to me, he was my middle school soccer coach. He was calm and collected, a relatively quiet coach who asked a lot of his players – never as an act of power, but out of his belief in us. He never tolerated laziness but would say, “Don’t complain; just run.”
And whenever we lost to a team, a team that played better than us, he would say, “Such is life.” It’s a quote that I take with me every day. It is so simple and so true —as the truth often is. Because you’re not always the better team or the better person, and that’s okay. It’s okay to lose. And all it means is that you have to practice more and work harder to be better next time.
Looking back, I now recognize that Coach McDermott was different. In many ways, he was an outsider, too…
Because most coaches don’t understand the power of brevity, simplicity, and quiet intensity. Instead, they yell, scream, pace, and rage – which often isn’t necessary. Not only that, but it may be detrimental to success, and the new norm to which we adjust – leading to more violent measures being used and justified in the future.
And most coaches don’t understand that losing isn’t something to be mad about or ashamed of. Rather, it’s an indicator of what needs to be worked on and improved. I cannot count how many times another coach, in his or her fury, would say, “We should have won that game.” But why? In my experience, it was not due to a lack of effort but a lack of talent, skill, and/or preparation, which could often be traced back – on some level – to a failure of the coach himself.
To be honest, I was never very close with Coach McDermott (as I was with many of the other coaches I had) because I never needed to be. He coached us with confidence and skill, and it rubbed off. We were a good team, and a winning one, too.
I feel lucky that a male coach of a (mostly) male team taught me how motivating a calm, quiet intensity can be – and how much power there is in that simplicity. I was a good player, so I played on the A team. That was that. It didn’t matter that I was a girl; I deserved to be where I was. I know now that Coach McDermott was the perfect coach for me at that time in my life.
In the many years since then, I have come to realize that things are not always so simple – and perhaps they never were. But I *also* know that I can play on the A team. I can be the only girl. And I can be the outsider, who is right where she belongs.
Such is life.