When I first stood sideline at a netball game I had no idea that I’d end up learning so much about how to approach life and writing.
The last two years I’ve had the chance to go on tournament with my school’s premier netball team as a chaperone/teacher in charge. I’m not a coach, I’ve never even played 😬 I’m the van driver and attendant and school rep and cheerleader.
I’ve learned so much watching the girls and listening to the amazing coach, Rachel Rasmussen. These lessons are life lessons, but being me I connect them most with writing. I’ve listed 12 of them below so we can all benefit from the wisdom gleaned on the sidelines.
When your head gets all messy that’s when you need to connect with someone.
We’ve all had moments when our own minds become our worst enemy. Confusion and self-doubt muddle our thinking and ability to perform well. Those are the moments when you need to make a connection with a buddy–let them set you straight or support you out of the mess. I do this all the time with my writing. When things are spiralling and I can’t see the trees for the self-doubt, I don’t so much slide as crash into my writing friends’ DMs and let them help me.
When the girls felt like they were flat in their play, the coach told them to buddy up with someone who would become their hype partner. We know what a difference it makes when you have someone in your corner telling you that you’re amazing and you got this.
I’ve learned a few things about netball over the last couple of years but I’m definitely no expert. But what I CAN tell, every time I watch the girls play, is the exact moment when they stop believing. When they stop backing themselves. Every single time that happens it’s a ripple effect. They stop playing well, they pull back, they don’t make the shot. That lack of belief is then reinforced by their actions so they continue to sink downwards in an awful spiral that many of us will be only too sadly familiar with.
The same applies for writing. And, indeed, for life. We need to back ourselves. There are enough obstacles throwing themselves in our path as it is, we can’t afford to be our own obstacle. And just as the cycle of lack of belief leads to reinforcing the idea that we are crap, so backing ourselves can lead to a cycle of positive reinforcement that yes, we’re getting there. I told the girls I could see when they back themselves because then they shine.
We have to back ourselves.
You can’t play at 100% if you haven’t practiced at 100%
If we write like we mean it, if we live with purpose, then the finished product will show that. We have to show up for the trainings. For the practice runs. For the moments when it isn’t going anywhere but we still learn something from it.
And we have to show up with commitment.
Sure, just deciding to commit and putting in a whole assed effort doesn’t mean it will always work out, but it will be better than if you didn’t. And that’s the point.
Don’t say ‘I played bad’. You’re not setting out to play badly. What specifically did you do or not do that you want to and can improve on.
This one hit me hard.
So often we diss ourselves. “This draft is trash”, “I’m so rubbish at this“. That kind of negative self talk is NOT helpful. Yeah, sometimes we need that honest look at ourselves but wallowing in generalised “I’m so crap” doesn’t do anything except a) reinforce that you are not succeeding and b) make you feel terrible. Targeting specific things you tried but that didn’t work, or recognising what you didn’t do that you should have, gives you a plan to go forward. It gives you recognition of what you tried–and that’s important. Acknowledging that we didn’t set out to play badly/write badly/be disorganised, means we can high five ourselves for our efforts while making plans for improvement.
The power of reflection
After each game, the coach gets the team to think and discuss what their goal going in was, did they succeed, how did they play, how did the team do. It’s a round robin which encourages reflection and focus.
Reflecting on what we have done, what we hoped and still hope to do, and how we feel about it, is a great life skill. Reflection is a key aspect of teaching – why did that lesson work? how could I have tried more to get that one student to engage. And I think it’s important that as writers we reflect as well. (More on living a reflective life here).
Looking past the mess to the clean pass
I loved this. This was on court, players looking past the mess and hustle of the defence and attack and seeing the clean pass. It’s SO easy to get stuck on the mess that’s in front of us. The day to day mess of life, of thoughts, self imposed deadlines and plans shifting. Of Covid…
Sometimes we need to look past all the mess to the clean pass – to see a different path or a new option.
And then make the pass.
(more on clearing mental space here)
Encouragement and kindness but honesty overall.
One of the things I most love about watching Rachel coach the team is her manner with the girls. When they’re on the court she alternates between enouragement and praise and “get on the ball! that was our ball! get it back! what are you doing??”. When they come off in between quarters she’s so encouraging. She doesn’t shy away from real talk, fierce talk, after a game or in trainings, but when a player comes off stressed and tired, she says ‘hey that was good, you played that defense well, just need to make sure you keep your feet moving”. The girls respond so well to it because they know that it’s honest – the good and the bad – but they feel supported and like their efforts are acknowledged.
Honesty is so important. We can’t improve without honest critique. Fierceness can be appreciated. This is a gif I use often for friends who are needing a push to get writing instead of doomscrolling Twitter:
But that honesty and fierce encouragement has to be tempered with support and kindness. We all know it’s tough, and knowing someone is on your side makes all the difference.
Grinding it out. Yes it gets tough but you can do it.
One of the last games of the tournament was so hard. It’s been a strange year with Covid 19 and tournaments cancelled and no training. They had about 5 games this season before we went back into lockdown. Luckily, being in New Zealand, we were back out of lockdown pretty soon and cases under enough control to play again. But their game fitness suffered. That didn’t matter – the girls left it all on the court. One player was almost in tears as they played so hard and still didn’t get those goals. But they didn’t give up. They dug deep and kept going.
Writing is hard. Publishing is harder. We got to grind it out. Keep going. Keep pushing. Leave it all on the page.
When it’s hardest is when we have to dig deep, remember why we’re doing it, and keep at it.
It’s okay to lose when you’ve played your hardest.
Our coach is intensely competitive. I’ve seen her on the sideline fully stressed and she hates losing. But, she always says to the team – “I don’t mind the loss when it’s a good hard game.”
Success is not guaranteed just because we work hard. But as my son said to me once when he was about 7: “You shouldn’t be stressed, you should be proud of yourself for working so hard.”
Publishing, life in general actually, is an industry where luck and timing is huge. Quality and skill and hard work are important, but if your work doesn’t resonate with the right people at the right time, it doesn’t matter how many hours you spent revising or learning your craft or polishing the manuscript.
But that’s a good loss. It still hurts (let’s be real it always will) but we can lay it to rest being proud that we did EVERYTHING we could.
I felt that way about my marriage ending to be honest. I wanted to be able to look my kids in the eyes and say that I had tried everything to make it work, to keep our family together. And I feel satisfied that I did. It still hurt, hugely, but I did what I could until I couldn’t.
Acknowledge and celebrate strengths and wins as well as working to improve weaknesses.
It took me about 16 months to put “Award Winning Writer” in my Twitter bio and I still feel uncomfortable about it. Maybe that’s a kiwi thing – feels too much like bragging. But I think it’s because I know how much more I want to improve and benchmarks I’ve set myself that I haven’t reached yet.
It’s so easy for us to focus on the negative. On the losses, the rejections. But that doesn’t help us emotionally and it isn’t realistic either. There’s so much more to us than our weaknesses or our ‘failures’.
Knowing our strengths means we can play to them.
It’s not personal.
This is a big one.
Playing competitively sometimes you’re left on the bench the whole game, or you’re pulled off and someone else is sent on. It isn’t personal. it’s the coach figuring out what the best play is for that game.
We talk about being rejected as an author but actually it’s a pass. A pass on that project. It isn’t personal. It isn’t a reflection of your worth as a person. It’s just that it isn’t quite right for that person at that time. It isn’t the best play for them.
What did you enjoy?
When the coach asked the girls this after our final game, an intense game we lost by three points, it really struck me. Yes there were tough moments and the outcome wasn’t what they wanted, but what moments did they enjoy?
This is like my happy jar approach, or a gratitude journal. It’s the recognition that there are good and fun things in life even when it’s hard.
There are times when writing can feel a bit like drudgery. But there are still moments we can enjoy. Maybe we enjoyed writing that paragraph when that one perfectly matched song came on the playlist. Maybe a bit of dialogue made us cackle. Maybe we feel proud of that line of description.
Sometimes we forget why we started writing in the first place – because it’s fun and we like it.
I think enjoyment can occasionally get lost once we start taking it seriously and want to be published. At times, the thought of ‘is this marketable? will anyone want it?” sucks all the enjoyment out of it.
I’m primarily a discovery writer. If I plot too much I don’t enjoy the story as much anymore. For a while, I felt I had to make myself outline and plot and structure my writing a certain way – but that’s not really how I write. I have the most fun when I jump around between scenes and jot small things down and find things out as I write.
My new goal is to rediscover my enjoyment and fun, to record what I enjoyed after each writing session.
I hope you find these insights as helpful as I have!