“BROTHER UP MEN” and with that the 5th grade PHENOM from Akron Ohio gather in a circle. Brothers in arms on and off the court. The biggest arms of all are of Coach Daryl who seems to wrap his arms around the whole team at once.
Last week in Akron Ohio I spent the weekend photographing the 10 year old Phenom boys basketball team. Their coach, Daryl Peterson has a talented group of kids who are highly ranked and extremely well trained. Moving in close photographing it all, listening to every word, listening to the silence, and watching everyone’s eyes connect. Leaving the action shots to the pros, I am shooting in that place where they have to come back down to earth. I am shooting the hearts on their sleeves. It is a strange balance between an almost militaristic discipline - both physical and emotional - where these young kids are expected to push themselves in powerful deep ways.
I am not sure where these kids get their swagger. Showing passion is insisted on. Showing emotion often feels pushed away as being weak. Much is held in. The bench can be brutal facing the coach who is right in your face. Taking fist bumps from your teammates when you screw up is not comforting. Yet it is just off the court that the glory and the agony all get sorted out.
A week later I am back in Boulder, and have a long phone call with Daryl. We talk about the balance. He says, “I want to see your pictures to understand what I am like.” I tell him that some of the pictures might appear exaggerated - making the whole process look more brutal than it really is. Even so, there is a clear reflection there. We talk about balance. Balancing gentle and tough love. Coach Daryl feels that he needs to toughen up the kids for the real world, but he knows if he pushes to hard he will lose them. I tell him it is like learning to drive a manual shift car on a hill - you need to find that sweet spot with the clutch and the gas. He agrees.
I have been more obsessed with the voice of the kids more than the voice of the coaches. Coaches mostly control the dialogue. You can often hear the coaches telling their kids, “I need you to do this for me. For the team….” Rarely do the kids say much back. I understand having someone in charge - especially at this age, at these games. Still….I want to hear what is going on in the kid’s heads.
I have asked and most kids tell me they block almost everything out. They hear their teammates cheering them on. They hear the crowd as a din of encouragement. It is just when the coaches are screaming from the sidelines non stop - the kids rear back into their own heads.
Coach Daryl gets this. He is trying to understand and adjust his voice and his role. One of the things I hear in his voice is vulnerability. Not always, but enough of the time for the kids to know he is listening. He knows when a kid is struggling. When a kid is feeling pain. When someone just gets totally overwhelmed. He can be soft and tough in the same moment.
Coaches will their players to victory. They are all in. They plead. Their bodies get tense and go into orbit. They want to win more than can even admit. Yet, they are also there to teach kids how to lose.