Shoulders Back: Lessons in Resilience for, and from, My Girls

“Shoulders back, Nicole Jo,” chided my mother time and time…and time…again. A habit of hunching my shoulders has plagued me all my life, equal parts due to genetics and insecurity. This simple phrase was my mother’s way to guard me against poor posture and remind me to be confident. These words linger today, an angel on my shoulder and a mantra of resilience every time I suffer a setback or doubt myself. They’re also wisdom I’ve sought to pass on in my role as a “Girl Coach.”

Six years ago, I reflected as my daughter blossomed into a talented athlete at the beginning of my coaching journey. Four years later, I wrote of promise as I started a new chapter, coaching all-girls’ soccer and basketball teams. Today, I’ve arrived at another inflection point. My 6th grade girls will move on to junior high and a new coach. As I revisit the insights that came with my experiences, I realize I couldn’t have predicted the depth and richness my interactions with these girls, my girls, have turned out to be. These last two years presented obstacle after obstacle, which became opportunity after opportunity for us to grow even stronger than I imagined.

“Shoulders back, Mira,” I gently prodded one of my players as she came off the court, dejected after making a few errors. “Coach, I just can’t do anything right,” she lamented. I looked at her, drew in a long, jagged breath, and empathized, “Girl, I know EXACTLY how you feel.”

The week previous had been one of the most difficult of my career. I had spent the past few years building content, assignments, and lessons in an effort to revitalize my pedagogical approach, create a more equitable classroom environment, and engage students while creating opportunities for rigorous academic dialogue. Teaching and coaching are my life’s passions; I pour countless hours of my life into these endeavors, often to the point of exhaustion because I honestly don’t know any other way. 

But just a few week’s into a new semester, I was left shell shocked, sitting in my office, fighting to hold the pieces together while unsuccessfully battling back tears of frustration and anger.  A student complained that they were offended by my efforts to include diverse voices. They were upset by assignments that challenged students to think critically and connect meaningfully to current events. They twisted my words, told boldfaced lies, and sent vitriolic emails, insisting I replace course materials and assignments the student had never even read. This student threatened legal action, and even expressed a desire for me to be fired.

Despite all of my effort and passion, I was left dejected and insecure, feeling like I just couldn’t do anything right. I completely understood Mira at that moment (and many others).

The challenges of the past two years have produced multiple moments just like this for all of us. The disappointments, uncertainty, fears, and exhaustion of the pandemic: a steroid injection into the “normal” (whatever the hell that is anymore) challenges faced on and off the field of play. While we try to create a space of recluse on the court or field, it’s impossible to shut out the stressors of the outside word completely. 

Of course it’s cliché and unoriginal, a “no duh” statement, I would tell my students, to show the parallel between lessons learned in sport and “life” lessons. Barf, I can see the corny inspirational posters and memes now. But, as I also tell my students, clichés are clichés because they hold truth for so many; the trick is to make that truth your own.

My girls are now preteens and tweens; as I’ve grown into my coaching role, their bodies, minds, and personalities are growing too. My sweet Lucia emerged from 2 years of the pandemic 8 inches taller and a whole lot sassier. Girls are becoming aware of how they look and who is looking at them. They’re struggling to manage the strongest of emotions and feel comfortable in their ever-changing skin. Oh and there is drama. Lots of it.

I do not remember my middle school days fondly. No amount of money in the world could convince me to go back. I agonized over severe acne and felt insecure about my changing body and evolving sense of self. The other girls my age all dealt with their insecurities differently. Many shrunk out of site, others begged for attention, and some were just plain mean. As an adult, I recognize all of this as a normal part of development. Living through it, though, awkwardly attempting to navigate the perils of middle school, was agonizing. 

And so here we are together in this space, learning how to manage this difficult time…during a pandemic. We’ve got this, right?

The sisterhood my teams have cultivated is irreplaceable. I’d like to take credit for this culture of camaraderie, but the girls just intuitively built it.  I love them and they love each other; it’s support and validation in its simplest form. They pick each other up, both figuratively and physically. We are a tribe, a clan, a family, all of us different, but standing in solidarity with each other. It’s this love that engenders the strength to take on the world’s challenges.

And what challenges we have faced. We’ve faced issues beyond our control: shutdowns, quarantines, illness, racism, and sexism. We’ve battled internally as well with doubt, conflict, physical and mental obstacles alike. We didn’t always handle these encumbrances perfectly, but we faced them and beat them, often managing several at once. Through it all, we’ve found mantras to keep us moving forward. In the spirit of The Chicks song, “Julianna, calm down,” these words are steadfast reminders to stand strong in a world of chaos:

Shoulders back, Mira. Channel that anger, Rylee. You are a queen, Amiya. Keep your focus, Nevaeh. Own your individuality, Ava and Alana. Take the shot, Leila. Embrace your strength, Aubrey. Hold yourself accountable, Payton. Work harder than everyone else, Allison. Emanate your greatness, Delaney. Worry only about what you can control, Kate. Make smart decisions, Cori. Take deep breaths, Layla. Take your space, Lucia.

Be grateful, Coach Nicole.

Resilience. Grit. Determination. These words have been tossed around in many circles and most often refer to individual qualities that represent strength and the ability to overcome difficult situations. While of course, these qualities are important to develop individually, some have questioned the glorification of resilience. They wonder if it can normalize toxic relationships and place too heavy of a burden on those who bear a disproportionate share of the struggle. Think Encanto’s Luisa Madrigal.

What my girls have taught me is that individual resilience can only take us so far. When I sat, crying and defeated in my office, it was my department chair, Beth, who stopped in to remind me how valuable I was. It was my dear friend and colleague, Elizabeth, who listened empathetically for an hour before pleading with me to see myself the way she did: smart, competent, dedicated. It was my girls who were finally able to coax a smile from me when I arrived at practice, eyes puffy and energy depleted. In those moments, my champions, my friends, my sisters, my girls, embodied the resilience I needed. 

And that is what I try to do for them. This collective strength, community resilience, is the true achievement. I grew up knowing the power of sisterhood well. My mom, my three sisters, and I endured both shared and individual hardships. I was also fortunate to have a tight network of girlfriends, women I still depend on to this very day. We fought with each other, yes, but ALWAYS for each other with full intensity. As the oldest child, I often felt like I needed to forge ahead alone and be strong enough for everyone. Now I realize the strength of my sisters, my girls, held me upright as I faced the headwinds of each challenge.

My daughter Lucia doesn’t have any sisters by blood, but my goodness do she and her teammates have a sisterhood. Together they’ve conquered challenges, great and small. They will navigate all the future holds for them, together, in solidarity, resilient and confident. My girls, OUR girls have each other. WE have each other. So shoulders back, ladies, we’ve got this because we’ve got our girls.


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