I Hope This Is Hard For You

pushbikeuphillOn the day when the 6th graders were supposed to choose their winter sport, I was making small talk with the current crop of water polo players.

A girl pushed into the group and said, “Coach Kelly, will water polo be easy next semester?”

Will it be easy? Did she really just ask that?!

Normally, that thought would come tumbling out of my head – with feigned surprise. But…we needed more water polo players, especially girls, so I couldn’t afford to scare her away. I didn’t want to tell her the truth: water polo was by definition hard. For someone with her limited swimming experience, it would be the opposite of easy.

“Um…..if I say, ‘No’ does that mean you will pick a different sport?”

The boy in her class who most enjoys challenge yelled, “It’s hard!”

I looked at him and wanted to boot him from the circle. Instead I prompted him, “But do you like it? Is it fun?”

“Yes, yes! It’s SO FUN!”

The girl looked at me, uncertain. “But….will it be easier than it was last semester?”

My brain was whirling trying to decipher the question. Did she mean last year or last season? I didn’t think she had ever played water polo. Where was the question coming from, and why?

“You mean, will it be easier than swimming? Last season?”

“No. Like now. Will it be easier than…..like, water polo, now.”

I looked at her, bewildered.

“But,” I sputtered, “How do you know it’s hard? Why do you – what? You’re taking dance!”

What was it with these kids and their aversion to challenge?! I sighed inside and wondered if it was inevitable that funny, adventurous 6th graders would turn into the current crop of 7th graders: diametrically opposed to anything resembling physical movement, much less challenge.


For the prior eight weeks the 7th and 8th graders had exhausted me with their recurring question, “Can we have a fun day?”

At swim practice a “fun day” includes things like relays, games of sharks and minnows, social kicking, and odd-ball challenges that secretly improve their “water-ninja” skills. Fun AND activity.

However, I had come to learn that, by “fun day,” these students meant, can we float around on the inner tubes and sit on the side of the pool deck and stand for forty minutes in the hot showers yelling so loudly that people in Kansas can hear us? On what planet would I allow that to happen more than once a semseter?! Are you seriously asking me for this Every. Single. Day?!

It was an irritation partly of my own making. First, I had allowed a fun day once, only because I hadn’t realized the differences in our definitions. And, second, the next time the question was asked, I had actually answered it. (My exact words: “Ah, no.”)

From then on, rarely did class start without my having to answer it again. No, no, no, maybe, I’ll decide after warm-up, probably not but you never know, no, not likely, stop asking me, well we were but then you asked me so no, stop making me say the word no and just let me surprise you!

After a few weeks I decided to just ignore the question, but that did not make it go away. Rather, it would just get asked louder and more insistently, and eventually in full harmonic choral arrangement if I didn’t put it to rest in the first minute of our walk to the pool.

Near the end of the semester out of irritation and exasperation I turned to them, fake giggling, and said, “I think there must have been a mis-print in the email or something? What did Coach Jensen say you were signing up for? Because I was definitely hired to coach swimming and you guys clearly think you signed up for pool party! Miscommunication?”

They laughed, many of them looking at me with expressions that said, “Okay, clever enough. You win this round.” In fact, they did not ask me the question for two whole days.

Over the course of that season I spent too much time wondering what exactly was causing their aversion to doing the THING THEY HAD CHOSEN OF THEIR OWN FREE WILL.

Had they all picked swimming as a last resort, was it the choice they hated the least? Were they tired and hungry by the last period of the day? Did they have so many demands throughout the day to learn and do things correctly and exceptionally (this is, after all, a private college-prep school) that PE was the place where they needed to just play – EVERY DAY?

Perhaps it was just that my coaching style was so vastly different from what they had experienced in 6th grade that I could never, would never be able to win them over, no matter how much I “dumbed down” the expectations? Maybe they actually did expect a daily pool party.

On the most frustrating days I would think, depressingly: maybe kids these days really are….entitled and lazy.

Left to follow it’s natural course, that thought would led to a sense of hopelessness and rumination on whether it’s unfair to send soft, entitled kids to be adults in the world we are gifting them, or unfair to potentially ask too much of kids. Which direction should we make a mistake?

Probably, ideally, we provide ample opportunity for them to take on challenge. And then, as parents and educators, we have a formidable task: calibrate the challenge so that it’s hard (and sometimes – but not always – do-able); help them develop coping skills for failure; and teach them frame their progress and successes. This is HARD work for EVERYONE.

The day after 6th grade sign-ups, I checked the list. The girl – the one who had asked me if it would be easy? I found her name under Water Polo.

I love it when they surprise me.



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