Coaching Imogene Herdman

Yesterday I made a girl cry.

The head coach told me, “You did the right thing.”

When I told the story to one of my sons, he said the same thing. “That was the right decision,” he said.

Still, I went to sleep thinking about her and woke up thinking about her.

Basically, I’m coaching Imogene Herdman. If you’ve never read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. The opening line in the book is, “The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world.” Imogene is all Herdman.

In fact, I’ll call my swimmer Imogene for this post.

She’s mean. A real bully. Lots of name-calling. Shoving. Swimming over top of other kids. Always late — when she shows up at all. Mouthy.

I’ve said to my co-coaches more than once, “I need to figure Imogene out. Where does the mean come from?”

A lot of kids these days are from broken homes and blended families, so I don’t want to assume that’s the root, but I think it plays a part. She’s been displaced by a baby half-brother in her home. She’s a hers, but he’s a theirs.

My group of swimmers is developmental. They’re mostly around 10 years old and still learning the strokes. We practice Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

On Tuesdays, however, I coach a different group, a higher level group, because their coach can’t make Tuesdays at all.

A few parents of swimmers from my group have asked about having their child practice on Tuesday with me. Piano lessons and other activities make it hard to make it to all the practices. I’ve answered that on a case-to-case basis.

Imogene showed up last Tuesday.

“Can I practice today to make up for some of my missed practices?” she asked.

I paused. “Can you be nice?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, looking up at me so hopefully.

“Can you listen and do what you’re told?” I asked. She often doesn’t.

“Uh-huh,” she said, and gave me a please-please-please smile.

“Okay, we’ll give it a try,” I said.

She made it about 40 minutes before she started pushing and swimming over top of other kids.

The next day, she didn’t come to practice. She went to the locker room, though, and told the other girls, “I’ve been moved up to another group.”

“Was Imogene moved up?” my saintly swimmers asked.

“No,” I told them.

She came Friday in full-on bully mode, skipped the meet on Saturday, and then at Monday’s practice told me that she was coming on Tuesday.

“No, Imogene,” I told her. “Coming on Tuesday is a conversation I need to have with your parents. You can’t just decide that you’re coming.”

But she came.

And I made her get out.

“We talked about this yesterday,” I said to her.

“I have a note from home,” she replied, but didn’t offer to show it to me.

“I’d like to have a conversation, not a note,” I told her.

She stared at the deck.

“My problem, Imogene, is this,” I continued. “You aren’t always nice to the other swimmers in your lane. You don’t do what I ask you to do. You skip practices. You skip meets.”

Tears filled her eyes.

“I can’t go to swim meets,” she said, her lower lip trembling. “I have a baby brother.”

“Can you ask some of your friends for rides to meets?” I suggested, but as soon as I said the words, I knew the answer. She doesn’t have many friends.

The tears rolled down her cheeks. I thought of Amanda Beard’s memoir, In the Water They Can’t See You Cry. On deck, standing in front of me, I could see the tears.

“Tuesday practices are a privilege for our group,” I said. “I need to talk with one of your parents.”

With that, she left.

And I felt like crying.

“You did the right thing,” the head coach said. “She can’t run the show. You feel badly because you’re kind.”

I didn’t feel kind.

I felt like I had kicked Imogene Herdman out of the Christmas Pageant. At the start of Advent.

For me, swim team has always been about a thousand different things other than swimming. Now it’s about a Christmas Pageant bully.

How do I reach Imogene?

8 thoughts on “Coaching Imogene Herdman

  1. Do you have time to have a face-to-face with her parents? If so then you can work out a solution that’s beneficial to everybody. Good luck Sally!

  2. You ARE reaching Imogene – that’s the thing. She wants to please you, she wants to be in your Tuesday squad. But she is boiling with rage. I think. She has been shoved sideways and made to see just how unimportant she is to the most important person in the world (her mummy) by the arrival of a baby that she didn’t ask for into a family that is not of her creation. The only way to make it right is to be consistent, fair and encouraging of the notion that she has to play within the boundaries set or not be allowed to play at all. You are such a good and kind soul and you want to wrap her in a loving hug and magic all the pain away. But you can’t. You can only use your goodness and kindness to show her what fairness is. Without her parents engaging in the process it is almost impossible. I am sure you have read ‘The Boys in The Boat’ …. Joe Rantz springs to mind – adults have so much to answer for and when you are the adult coach you are often at the effect of the damage inflicted by those who should, in principle care most. I believe in you, Sally – if there is a way you will find it. As my father used to say, there is no such word as can’t but can is often almost impossible to catch.

    • A good friend recommended “The Boys in the Boat” but I still haven’t read it.

      Imogene is such a tough one. She’s full of sass and vinegar. She showed up today halfway through practice wearing street clothes. “I can’t come today,” she said, as haughtily as a 10 year old can. No apology — just sass. I get so frustrated. Somewhere under there is a little girl nursing an unseen wound.

      • You must read that book. My husband bought it for me and it sat on the shelf for 3 years because (as an ex-Olympic rower myself) I could not believe that the author could really make the story shine. I was wrong. It is honestly one of the best books I have ever read. He is reading it now and said exactly the same last night. Imogene has been delivered to you for a reason, I simply know it. That brittle hard veneer masking the pain she is feeling …. slowly slowly catches monkey – you will get there I am sure but being frustrated (and angry in some measure) is part of the journey – perhaps to cast light away from the pain you feel every day looking after your beloved Papa. I always say our Lord works in Mysterious ways …. I sense His hand in this. Go softly my friend. 🙏

  3. I’m just sitting here with you. In the ache of it, in the softness of your heart, in the true Imogene that’s under her hard shell.

  4. Such a tough situation. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been navigating the waters of life for these 69 years and haven’t learned a thing. I’m at a loss to think of how to reach this girl. Not wiser, just older.

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