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Flying Life: Put me in, coach

The sport that taught me how to fly

When I first signed up to coach my 9-year-old’s softball team, I did it for one reason: I grew up loving the sport and was lucky enough to play all the way through college.

So, I wanted to make sure my daughter and her friends got the same experience. I wasn’t going to be one of those coaches who only cared about winning. I wanted to make sure these girls knew that sports are a blast. As a side note, winning is fun, so if we could find a way to have a lot of fun and also win, then that was my goal for the season.

Because my daughter is left-handed and blessed with an extraordinarily strong will (God help me!), I knew pitching would be a good fit for her, so we started sending her for lessons once or twice a week to get ready for the season. But that pitching coach was so tough and demanding that I wondered if we were doing the right thing. Ellie is only 9 years old, and this coach is pushing for 100-percent focus every pitch, telling her she can do better, telling her to try harder. Is it too much? Will this sort of atmosphere suck all the life out of the sport for her?

That concern resurfaced in my mind last week, when I was conducting an instrument checkride in the Nashville, Tennessee, area and flew over a softball complex on our way to shoot the RNAV Runway 1 approach into Lebanon (M54). When the applicant broke out of “the clouds” at minimums, we were over a highway with semi-trucks passing what felt like two feet underneath us, then past a displaced threshold for a landing. He did a fantastic job and managed to fly a perfect glideslope all the way to touchdown. That approach required 100-percent focus if it was to be done safely. There was no room for a lapse in attention. Maybe what we’re asking Ellie to do is not so bad after all, because at some point, she’s going to need that ability to focus on her goals, whether she’s shooting an instrument approach to minimums or making a case for her client in a courtroom or teaching a classroom full of 30 rowdy kindergartners. I wonder just how much of what I learned down on that ball field prepared me for what I do every day in an airplane.

Walking out on the field for my daughter’s first practice, I knew in an instant that my goals for the season had been short-sighted. Feeling the red infield dust on my skin, the stitched seam of the ball on my fingertips, surrounded by a team of hopeful young women—well, that felt like coming home. Suddenly, the clock was rolled back and I was out there with my own teammates again, putting in long hours to hone our hitting skills so we could compete in the next tournament. What kind of pilot would I be if we hadn’t walked off the field victorious? Would I have known that consistent hard work pays off when dealing with the challenge of airline pilot training? Or what if I had never learned that when you strike out, you have to forget about it and move on so you can get a hit the next time? Would I have bounced back after I failed that checkride and be working as a designated examiner today?

Maybe it wasn’t a ball field for you; maybe it was a stage and a part in the school production or learning to play the drums so you could play in the church band. Or was it a body shop job that gave you the confidence to understand how mechanical things work? Whatever it was, I’m guessing you wouldn’t be flying airplanes without those experiences that molded you and made you stronger.

Now I have a new goal when I’m out there coaching the sport that shaped so much of who I have become: I remember that I am not coaching a softball team. I am coaching the next generation’s doctors and pilots, mothers and leaders. So, when I ask my second baseman to slide into home to get under a tag and she backs off because she’s scared it will hurt, I’m going to encourage her to keep trying until she gets past that fear. And when my center fielder isn’t strong enough to throw the ball all the way home, I’m going to make her keep working until one day she can throw out a runner with accuracy. Ellie and her pitching coach have had some success, by the way. She struck out eight batters at last weekend’s tournament and walked off the field with a newly found confidence. Will that confidence carry her through pilot training one day and into a NASA spacecraft bound for new horizons? Well, this mama can continue to dream….

I remember that I am not coaching a softball team. I am coaching the next generation’s doctors and pilots, mothers and leaders.

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