Today is my two-year anniversary of meeting my coach!
I think you already know how much I love/admire my coach. I admired him right from the start, even before I really knew him. Our first year of training was only for an hour, but it was my favorite hour of the week. For that first year I knew very little about him. We trained at my school gym, he didn’t have his courts yet, and I only went to his house once, never meeting his wife or kid.
Now I’m a fixture at his place, both his home and badminton courts, and even traveled with him to his ancestral hometown in Guangdong Province. Everyone in his family knows me and I’m like the weird kid/aunt they put up with. When he opened his court a year ago he included me in everything, even groups that were above my level and I was always grateful for him including me.
In Xiamen we are the Batman and Robin of the badminton scene and there are plenty of rumors about how close our relationship actually it. (For the record–just friends! A woman can love and admire a man without wanting to have his babies.) A simple word from him can give me so much confidence and power. Or it can ruin me. Hell, he doesn’t even need to use word. I can sense his feelings from his body language and it can totally affect me.
I can’t believe how lucky I am to find not only an amazing coach, but someone who really “gets” me. Truth is, I have been looking for a mentor for a long time. I always thought I wanted a writing mentor, and I searched and joined groups and met many people over the years, but none ever clicked.
Yet now, on the badminton court in southern China, I somehow stumbled upon the mentor I always wanted (and had given up looking for–was that the trick?): A 40-year-old, smoking Chinese guy with no English. Who can ever guess where life leads you?
I remember the day I decided this guy was the coach for me. It was in the early months of my training, when we were doing basic stuff. I somehow managed to get a really good shot off him. We were both shocked. I laughed, he praised me and we continued. The very next shot he smashed inches in front of my body, followed by a look like, “you got one shot but don’t forget who’s boss.”
Maybe to you that sounds a little petty. Did he really need to prove his superiority to me, a total noob? But I loved it. It showed me he was competitive, and he would train me to win, not just to play. It also showed me that he would never baby me, make things easy on me, or “let” me win. Whatever victory I wanted to claim, I would need to work my ass off for it. That was exactly the kind of person I wanted training me.
And the thing is he teaches me a lot more than just badminton even if he doesn’t know it. Sometimes he openly teaches me court etiquette, or Chinese culture or random bits of information (“Do you know if you play badminton you get better at riding a motorcycle?” he told me this week. “Because your reactions time is much faster so you can avoid accidents better.”) But many times he teaches me through his examples. He is firm and demanding yet always fair. Everyone loves to play with him not just because of his skill but because he is fun. He brings such enthusiasm and joy to every game, even against beginners, and I strive to do the same. He also worked hard for years to open his own court, fulfilling a lifelong dream at 40, and he has never valued money over experiences or happiness. In China that is a rare quality.
He’s also equal parts good cop/bad cop and he changes when he needs to push me.
Like a few weeks ago he was all bad cop pushing me and chiding me for not doing what he wanted. The entire time he was all just “Wrong! What are you doing?!” and “Is this how you want to play? You don’t want to be a top level player? You just want to keep passively hitting it?” he said with his angry “bad cop” scowl.
But this week, I was moving slower and weaker. I woke up on training day with a sore throat–the first sign of a cold–and I couldn’t muster the speed or energy he was demanding.
“I’m sorry,” I said gasping at one point after all the shuttles were used up. “I think maybe I’m getting sick. I’m tiring easily today.”
“What?” he looked at me confused. “No. You did good. Look at how many birdies we went through he said pointing to the 282 birdies on the ground (I gather them up in lines of 10 so I know exactly how many there are.) You should be tired.” He correctly read my mood, knew I was feeling a bit sick, and knew to get me through our training he would need to encourage me. He was “good cop” and I made it through training better than I expected.
He can also read my mood outside of badminton. He knows when I’m annoyed, sad or tired. He knew it was long ago when I had my most discouraging night and he knew it a few weeks ago we all went out to dinner after badminton to support our new club. I was already tired from playing badminton, and we didn’t head out to dinner until 11pm. Everyone was smoking, drinking, eating seafood (which I don’t like), and talking a mile a minute. I was too tired to focus on Chinese, sick of the cigarette smoke and just wasn’t in the mood. I tried to look cheerful but my coach, who was sitting several people away from me, caught it.
“Tired?” he stealthily texted me on his phone.
“Yeah,” I texted back.
He sent the hug emoji. I had to tough it out until everyone was finished, it would be too rude to leave early, but it was nice to have a little sympathy and understanding.
He’s also changed my life in more tangible ways. A few weeks ago I walked into the court one morning to find a workman setting *something* in his office. The something was a fish tank! I never thought about it before,but as soon as he got one I wanted one. Now I am the happy owner of 4 little fish.
But back to badminton. Despite all this closeness, despite all the time we spend together, despite all my improvements I still worry that if I don’t keep improving I’m gonna lose his dedication and trust.
Recently he’s gotten a new student, a woman, who is very dedicated. She trains twice a week and she plays with us regularly. She has the fittest/best body for badminton. In fact, if you don’t see her play, you would assume she is a pro just based on the way she looks and carries herself. She’s not good…not yet, but you can see she if she keeps up her training and playing she will improve quickly. She’s also 10+ years younger than me, prettier and can communicate easily with everyone and quickly fit in.
Basically, I’m jealous. I wish I could say that I was a better person than that but I haven’t yet transcended these human things called emotions.
And it all stems from my coach. What if my coach likes her more than me? She trains twice a week, she understands all of what he says immediately (when I struggle for 3 minutes with the word “passive”) and If she zooms to the top of the pack, and it was because of his training, of course he is going to feel pride. Of course he’s gonna brag about her, and *gulp* of course he’s gonna like her more than me.
But I can never keep my feelings to myself so I brought her up on our drive to training last week.
“You know that new girl? She’s doing good,” I said gingerly bringing up the topic. My coach nodded.
“She should improve faster, but she hasn’t yet,”my coach said.
“I’m sure she will,” I said. “But…” I added. “Maybe I don’t want her to improve…”
He looked at me. “Why not?”
“Because…if she improves faster than me then you’ll like her more than me…” I said shyly.
“No way,” he said. “Me and her are friends. You and I are very, very, very, good friends right?” I nodded. “We are qinren, you understand?” Then in his poor English he said “fah-maw-ree” Family.
I can’t be an easy tudi, apprentice, to teach. I learn slowly and forget quickly. I argue when frustrated, and because of the language barrier I get frustrated a lot. I have a lot of my own thoughts and opinions and can be stubborn as hell and vocal about my feelings, especially if I feel like someone is being unfair.
I’m honestly not sure how he has managed to put up with me, much less still like me as much as he does. For whatever reason he knows all my shortcomings, deals with them and even has figured out the way to get past them to help me improve. Whatever skill and success I have for badminton for the rest of my life is because of him. I can never thank him enough for that.
Anniversaries aren’t such a big thing in China, but I’m American so I think they should be celebrated. When I was in America this summer I ordered a deck of playing cards with our picture on it as a unique yet silly gift. And for the day I ordered a bunch of cookies from my friend Lita–known as the cookie queen of China–as my coach loves to try western things.
It’s a small gesture but I think he knows the feelings behind it. Thank you coach for everything you’ve done and let’s keep it going for more years!