Dream and Believe
The assessment was delivered in one cold short sentence:
"Jennie's not a championship pitcher."
With that, my softball coach slammed the door on my dreams. On my self-image. On my future. He told my father in no uncertain terms that I was not a winner. Not a champion.
I was 12 years old.
That could have been the end of my story right there. It would make for a very short book — a pamphlet really — titled Not a Champion by Jennie Finch. That's what would have happened if I allowed someone else to define me. If I accepted someone else's limits on myself. If I let another person tell me who I was, rather than listen to my own dreams.
Instead, I chose to believe in myself.
Falling in Love with Sports
My father, Doug, believed in me, too. He had seen me fall in love with the game of softball, growing and learning, eager for bigger challenges. He had seen me battle as hard as any boy — and with two older sons he had worked with plenty of boys and young men. He knew that I was tough and strong.
He knew that I could be a champion.
I started playing softball when I was five. My parents first noticed that I had a strong arm when we were spending Christmas with my grandparents in Iowa. A California kid, I was thrilled by the snow. I packed a snowball and tossed it so far that no one saw where it landed. Mom and Dad looked at each other — how did their little girl get such an arm?
Whether it was heaving snowballs or softballs, I loved to throw and catch. In our family, we were avid fans of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who played not far from our home in La Mirada, California. Mom was actually the biggest fan, sharing season tickets with friends at work. She used to take my brothers and me to games. When the Dodgers won the World Series in 1988, we were all thrilled. My dream was to play for the Dodgers — I didn't know any better.
While my dreams of playing Major League Baseball were far off in the future, my present was filled with softball. I loved the game. I loved hitting, fielding, sweating, getting dirty, working in the batting cage, being with teammates. And most of all I loved pitching. I loved having the ball in my hand at the start of every play when my team was in the field. I loved being involved.
Pretty soon my parents started getting advice from people in the softball world. They saw I had some talent and suggested I should spread my wings and find a more competitive league. Some people in our community thought I should stay in La Mirada. For me, that was the start of learning about politics in sports. My parents wanted to do what was best for me, and they were teaching me that I should strive to be the best I can be. But sometimes that means going against what everyone else is doing.
Eventually, I joined a powerhouse travel ball team called the Firecrackers. It was such a big deal to make that team. And they had invited me for a tryout — they wanted me! I was so proud.
I was one of the younger players. Most of the girls were a year older than me. They were physically more mature than I was, and they had all played together for a few years. I felt naïve and intimidated, like an outsider trying to break into their little clique. I worked hard to overcome my shyness and tried to make friends with my new teammates and fit in to this dominating team.
But every time my turn would come up to pitch in a tournament championship game, the coach always found an excuse not to pitch me. Over and over again, he'd pitch his daughter or some other girl. But never me.
Finally, my father asked him why. After all, I was playing really well. We were a dedicated family. I never missed practice. Why couldn't I ever get the chance?
"Because," the coach told my father, "Jennie's not a championship pitcher."
When I heard that, I was devastated. Did he see something in me that I couldn't see? Was he right?
The self-doubt flooded in. We later learned that the team hadn't really wanted me — they had just invited me to join their team so that I wouldn't be on a competing squad. That made me feel even worse.
But my father sat me down and said that we were going to make a change. He firmly believed I could pitch in championship games. He'd had enough of youth sports' politics. Though he was an advocate of finishing what you start, he was a bigger advocate of doing what was right for his children. So we left the Firecrackers and started looking for another team.
As with so many tough times in my life, that instance taught me a life lesson. Having to leave my big-time team was an early education that life isn't always fair. It doesn't always go the way you want. But you control what you can. We might not have been able to change one coach's mind, but we could find another team where I wouldn't be prejudged and where I would get a chance.
I dreaded the process. I had to be the new girl all over again. That was a really big deal on a travel ball team because you spent the whole weekend with your team. It was more fun if you had friends to share the experience, and sometimes girls could be mean to the newcomer.
It was awkward being brand new. Again.
Lessons From a Dark Field in the Middle of Nowhere
My new team, the Batbusters, was a better fit right from the start. The girls were friendlier. I was more comfortable.
We were an underdog team. In fact, we didn't qualify for nationals until the very last chance. We had to keep going to different tournaments, trying to qualify. We finally did and went to the ASA (American Softball Association) national championships, which were held in Tennessee.
We advanced to the semifinals in the loser's bracket. Because we had lost once, we couldn't lose again.
And what team was standing in the way of our team and the national championship game? My old team, the Firecrackers — and the same coach who was absolutely sure I couldn't be a championship pitcher.
I dreaded facing them. All spring and summer, every time I saw that team in a tournament, I got a stomachache. I avoided being around the Firecrackers. When I saw them at the opening ceremonies of the nationals — and saw the coach — I remembered what he had said about me. He didn't believe in me. He thought I wasn't a winner.
This game was my chance to prove him wrong. Or if I struggled, I would prove him right. It was up to me.
The game was played late on a hot muggy night on a really dark field out in the Tennessee countryside. I was in the bullpen warming up with my dad. It was almost pitch black out there. I had a blister on my finger that was bleeding and hurting. I was tired. I was scared. I didn't want to pitch.
"I can't go, Dad," I said. "I can't do it."
"Yes you can, Jennie," he said. "You can do this."
My coach came out to see how I was doing. I wanted to tell him, "Coach, someone else will have to pitch." But my dad just said, "She's going. She's ready."
I was shaking as I walked toward the mound on that field in the middle of nowhere. My stomach hurt. I had to pass directly in front of my old team — I could feel all of their eyes staring at me. I had to walk right past my old coach who was in the third-base coaching box. I felt as though he could see the self-doubt seeping out of me. I felt so nervous. So scared.
But then I stepped into the circle — and the adrenaline kicked in. All my hard work and training and preparation rose to the surface. I threw a few pitches. I got the first couple of batters out. I was focused. I was prepared. I was okay.
My dark cloud of fear lifted. I stopped worrying about the other team and the coach and whatever they thought of me. The big scary obstacle I had built up in my mind was gone. I was just a pitcher doing my job.
Back in the bullpen when I had been a scared young girl, my dad had been very firm. He wasn't being mean — he was showing his belief in me. Without him, I would have given up. I would have used the little blister on my finger as an excuse and missed my chance to prove myself. Dad didn't let me.
When I was little and my father taught me how to ride a bike, he would run alongside me and push me with his hand. He would be pushing, pushing, and then all of a sudden I would glance back and he wasn't pushing me anymore. I was riding my bike without him.
That's what happened that night in Tennessee. He kept pushing me along, pushing me toward the mound. Without him pushing me and encouraging me, I would have stayed in my comfort zone. I never would have stepped up to the challenge. I never would have found out I could do it on my own.
But I did.
I don't remember the final score of that game, but we won. We sent my old team back to California, and we went on to the championship game.
That night, I learned I was strong. I gained an inner confidence that I could continue to draw upon in tough times.
An Ongoing Process
So that's it, right? I learned that I was a championship pitcher and went on to great things and a wonderful career.
I did. But it's not quite that simple. Life is an ongoing process of learning to be strong, of battling doubts. There's never a moment where you think, Gosh, I have this all figured out. I have spent a lifetime trying to prove myself, figuring out who I am, and finding inner strength and self-confidence.
Playing sports helped me do that in so many ways, which is why I wanted to write this book — to share my stories and, hopefully, to provide some motivation and inspiration. Because I'm just like you — I'm working hard everyday to become a better person.
In this book, I hope to share some practical information, things that I wish I'd known growing up or that I found helpful in some of my struggles. I have some advice, tips, and strategies that have helped me. And I want to share with you my inspirations, my hopes and dreams, my struggles and challenges. Because while we are all unique and different, my journey isn't much different from any other girl's.
Through sports I learned to accept and appreciate my body and to accept myself for who I am. I gained confidence and inspiration. Athletics is not only good for your body, it's great for your mind and spirit. And I learned that life is about so much more than just the wins and losses at the end of a game.
My expertise is in sports. But the lessons I've learned help me in life: working hard, trying your best, handling pressure, and rising to challenges. These lessons can be applied no matter what passion drives you.
Why I Play
Sometimes I've been asked why I play softball and why I devoted so much of my life to a sport. It's a hard question to answer because the answer is so multi-faceted.
So here are just a few reasons I play:
I love the game.
I love the feeling of being part of the team, of playing for the name on the front of my jersey and not the back.
I love to compete against others and test myself.
I love to take risks and accept a challenge.
Because I can! My mother and grandmother never had the opportunity that I have.
I love to push my body as hard as I can and feel the sweat drip off my face.
I want to make my family proud of me.
I love the process and the feeling of satisfaction that comes from working toward goals, both individual and collective.
Playing helps me both build confidence and overcome the fear of failure.
My sport has given me so much in my life — confidence, a career, a chance to travel the world, great friends, even my husband and children.
I started out as just a little girl with big dreams, some of which weren't very realistic. But I kept dreaming and kept working. I kept nurturing my dreams with the help of my family. I practiced and prepared so that — despite nerves or fears — I was ready for the challenges.
When people lavish me with praise or assume I have it all figured out, I almost have to laugh because inside I feel like I'm still proving myself. I still feel like that little girl who was told she couldn't be a championship pitcher.
To this day, what that coach said about me echoes in my mind. I continued to see him for years after that night in Tennessee, because I played against his daughter through high school and in college. Never once did I see him without thinking that he never believed I could be a championship pitcher.
In a way, that coach did me a tremendous favor. My experience with him taught me a very valuable lesson: Don't let others determine who you are going to be. In that instance, it was a coach who didn't believe in me. But it could be a boy who doesn't think girls can be strong, or girls at school who are pressuring you to conform, or a science teacher who doesn't think you're smart enough.
There is tremendous power in words. A coach's discouraging words can haunt a kid forever. Every day, I get emails from girls who are thinking of quitting because someone doesn't believe in them. Or I receive letters from parents who want me to give their daughters a few words of encouragement to keep them on track.
Girls today are subjected even more to the power of words, to constant judgment and evaluation. Because of texting and Facebook and the immediacy of communication, we're all exposed to the power of others' words 24 hours a day. It's hard to shut the bedroom door and escape from it all, the way I could when I was a girl. The best defense is a strong belief in yourself and an acceptance of who you are and your individual strengths and talents.
This is your life. You only get one. This isn't a practice run for the real thing. You can lead your life the way other people think you should. Or you can follow your own passions and interests. You can lead your life the way you believe is best.
I work with so many girls across the country in my camps and clinics. They're all different — sizes, shapes, smiles, personalities — and they're all beautiful. Sometimes I see that they lack confidence or are discouraged. I see how an uncomfortable situation or a disparaging comment can easily push a girl off track and away from her dreams.
Looking back, I realize how many times my path could have gone a different way. I could have faltered or given in to self-doubt. I could have quit and changed my life irrevocably.
That night in Tennessee, I learned to face my fears and fight through them. I learned to rely on my ability — an ability that was honed through preparation and practice. Even though I wasn't confident out in the bullpen, I was ready for that moment.
I learned not to let someone else's opinion or judgment determine who I would be. Through that experience — one that I had dreaded so much — I gained a new layer of confidence, a core of inner strength.
Through the years, I kept building that confidence, adding layers to it. Though I still always feel the fear of failure, I've had enough moments of success that I can draw upon that reservoir of confidence in tough times. That experience enables me to keep going, to keep fighting.
The girl who wasn't supposed to be a championship pitcher won quite a few championship games with her travel ball team.
And won a collegiate national championship at Arizona.
And won a gold medal in Athens, Greece.
And, most importantly, learned that the true measure of a champion is on the inside.
If you dream big and believe in yourself, you never know where you'll end up.
I feel so privileged to be able to touch the lives of girls around the country and share my own stories of challenges and inspirations. I often hear from girls and their parents who want to tell me their own stories.
Here is a (modified for privacy) letter I received not too long ago that truly touched my heart. I am sharing it with you so you know that whatever is happening in your life you are not alone.
My daughter recently had the pleasure of meeting you at one of your appearances. It was a dream come true for her. I would like to share her story with you.
My daughter was just an average player in her early years. She decided to try pitching when she was 11. She was pretty wild and wasn't one of the Little League stars, so she got very little help and attention. But she always had determination, and she wanted to be just like you someday.
Finally, an older man who had taught his daughters to pitch noticed her, helped her, and got her on target. At 12 she joined a travel team and just blossomed, surpassing other pitchers. She became the starting pitcher on her high school team through a lot of hard work and determination.