By CLAUDE SCILLEY
Assemble half a dozen very keen, very talented 12-year-olds for an evening of basketball, and instead of letting them loose in a gym with a bunch of balls, you stick them in a classroom—for an hour or so.
Watch them squirm impatiently, right?
Not so, at least, not in the case of the minor bantam Kingston Impact team. These girls are rapt, seated in a semi-circle in front of coach Jackie Edwards. What they’re hearing has nothing to do with basketball, and yet everything to do with basketball.
“It’s interesting,” Edwards says afterwards. “It’s an opportunity for us and the girls to share openly how they’re feeling, and what they’re feeling.”
Such sessions happen occasionally with these girls, and the missing floor time doesn’t seem to have hampered their ability to perform. They were undefeated in five games in winning their last tournament, for instance, a couple of weeks ago in Oshawa.
Information gleaned from these gatherings might even be helpful.
“One of the girls said tonight that she feels like she’s bossy sometimes when she has to call the plays,” Edwards said. “She doesn’t want to tell the others where they have to go and where they don’t have to go.
“The girls all said we give you permission to be bossy; it’s not mean at all. It’s so refreshing to hear that.”
The idea, Edwards said, came from her Grade 7 teacher, Mrs. Mandzak, who later became godparent to Edwards’ children. Mandzak was Edwards’ track and field coach, and she’d host informal gatherings such as this with her athletes.
The respect the coach earned during those times became evident years later, when the coach was also an exchange judge during a relay race and she had to be the one to disqualify her own team from the gold medal. “Nobody else was around her,” Edwards said. “Had she not put that flag up, nobody would have known.”
At the time, Edwards was the same age as the girls she’s now coaching. “I shared with them that, as coaches, sometimes we have to say and do things that they may not like to hear, but it’s the right thing to do.
“It’s important for us to teach them that right is always right. It’s never wrong. Mrs. Manzak taught me those life lessons.
“How we felt about ourselves mattered more to her than the wins.”
Edwards said the reason she began coaching is because her boys played sports, and not always was it a good experience. “It was often just about the x’s and o’s; it wasn’t about how they were feeling about themselves,” she said.
“If it’s not fun at 12 years old, it sure as heck isn’t going to be fun at 15 or 16.”
That’s why Edwards believes it’s important to instill in these girls more than just the ability to dribble and shoot a basketball.
“I care about these girls” she said. “I don’t want these girls just to look at the sport. I want these girls to look at sports as an avenue to have a voice, as a way of expressing themselves in a manner that is healthy, in a manner that is collaborative, in a manner that is caring and compassionate. I want these girls to remember each other beyond basketball.”
To that end, these girls have taken it upon themselves to conduct a food drive in support of Martha’s Table.
“Mom and I used to go to Martha’s Table to volunteer,” explained Aaliyah Edwards, one of the team members, “but when we called to go back this year the manager said they didn’t allow anyone under 14 to volunteer anymore.”
So the girls, who come from nine different elementary schools, took it upon themselves to approach their respective principals to make an announcement in their schools, or to do so themselves in their individual classrooms, that they were collecting food items for the soup kitchen.
The campaign is ongoing, and it has spawned other ideas where the girls believe they can be helpful.
“There are lots of interesting things we can do to help out,” Hope Murphy said, suggesting visiting retirement homes to help with such things as gardening.
Raphaela Toussaint spoke of how it doesn’t take much to make someone feel grateful. “Others have helped us,” she said. “We have neighbours who shovel our driveway for us.
“It’s important to put others ahead of ourselves.”
Sydney Daggit said she and her teammates have things relatively easy. “We all have our own friends and family,” she said. “Not everyone has that.”
“It’s so easy for us to do,” echoed Roxanne Forget.
They’re words that make Coach Jackie proud.
“I see these girls as our future leaders,” she said, “and part of being a leader is enabling others.
“I’m trying to teach life skills, not just basketball skills, but those basketball concepts translate into real life. Sometimes the person who passes the ball is more important than the person who scores.”