Holding circle on the baseball diamond

by Emily Gillies

Fresh from my introductory workshop in The Circle Way, I was inspired to host meaningful and supportive conversations in many facets of my personal and professional life. Heather Plett and Amanda Fenton had imparted so much knowledge and filled our hearts with such devotion to this practice, that I was hoping to find and create circle everywhere I went. I returned home to my daily routines and obligations eager to share the gifts of circle, but I also carried doubts. Did I have the ability to be an effective host? Could I draw people together? Would others respond with enthusiasm and openness to this new process? Would my efforts to bring circle to new venues be well-received? Was I bold enough to step into this new method with faith and determination?

Trusting that the wisdom of circle would emerge once the container was created and the elements were in place, I took the first opportunity that came my way: baseball practice, where I coach 8-, 9-, and 10-year-old boys and girls. Our team had played the first two games of the season while I attended the workshop in The Circle Way, and they had experienced big losses both times. With our season barely underway and hits and runs that were few and far between, I didn’t want the players to give up before giving their best effort. So, how could we create the resilience and determination to keep playing despite feeling frustrated and overwhelmed? I knew to rely on the strength of circle to inquire into this difficult question.

While the kids were busy playing catch and ready to jump into batting practice, I made the decision to slow the process and connect everyone first. Realizing the opportunity for team-building, and wanting to acknowledge the “elephant” of being a losing team, I firmly believed we should start with a circle conversation and not the usual coach-led explanation of rules and game-play procedures. Before the players would be interested, they had to be invested. Inviting them to be authentic and share their own words was a better way to engage them than making them run laps. Leaning on The Circle Way understandings of hearing each person’s voice and perspective, of embracing difficulties and diversity, and the desire to create a healthy team relationship, I was bold enough to silence my doubts and step into the host role.

Baseball gloves and a ball formed the center.

Baseball gloves and a ball formed the center.

Calling the players to join me at the pitcher’s mound, we established our impromptu center by putting our gloves in the middle. Huddled together in a haphazard circle, their eager faces peered up at me awaiting instruction. Aware of my dual role as guardian, I noted an air of impatience or uncertainty in the unspoken question, “This isn’t how we usually start ball practice – what is she doing?”

While mindfully holding the rim and relying on The Circle Way to guide me, I knew the next necessary steps were welcoming and offering a start-point. Looking at these inquisitive children, I thanked each of them for coming out to practice on this hot, windy day. At that point, there was little eye contact and their body language told me they wanted to keep running around. However, when I continued on and acknowledged the losses earlier in the week, their attention snapped into focus and the mood was transformed. No more squirming around and shuffling of feet—they were listening. They were present. There was a shift in their energy. To my joy, The Circle Way was working.

Stating the intention of discussing their experiences and voicing the agreements of being honest in our speaking and respectful in our listening, I explained we would go around the circle to hear everyone. Sticking with a simple check-in question, I asked them to share one word about how they felt during the first games. Responses ranged from “challenging,” “intense,” “scary,” and “hard” to “fun” and “exciting.”

The depth and variety of their responses astounded me. In such a short amount of time, and with such loose preparation, these children were able to participate actively and seriously. Even without a talking piece, these children instinctively respected the circular method of giving each other the time and space to share their own reflection. They acknowledged each other’s offerings with knowing nods and murmurs of agreement, but they refrained from interrupting. In front of their peers and their coaches, they were able to be real and true. When everyone had shared into the circle, I noted smiles of relief and connection. They had been heard. They had been seen. The rim of the circle held them in their vulnerability. They found the support and strength they needed waiting for them at center. The shame and sadness of being a losing team was erased while they co-created a harvest of validation, connection, and empowerment.

Inspirational felt-marker "tattoos"

Inspirational felt-marker "tattoos"

Moving onto field practice, the players were enthusiastic and positive while they gave catching, throwing, pitching, and running their best effort. While observing the action together, my co-coach’s wife offered a comment that validated my faithful decision to incorporate The Circle Way.“That’s why you’re amazing,” she said. “No one else would think to do that with the team.” I was gratified to know that talking and supporting each other in circle benefited the team just as much as running bases and catching pop flies. Baseball practice became more than learning the technicalities of the game; it also provided an opportunity to forge connections and build pride in ourselves as a team.

At the conclusion of this long practice, I was intentional about closing with circle. Sitting together in the gravel with our gloves at center, our check-out began with players sharing something they learned at this practice. Again, the children responded with ease and shared a well-thought out answer. Even though these players and their families had given up most of a sunny Saturday afternoon to be at a dusty ballpark, it felt right to take a few extra minutes to honor their hard work by hearing every voice speak its truth into center.

At our next game, I noticed tears in the eyes of players who repeatedly struck out. Few of our players made it on base, and there was disappointment on their faces as they returned to the bench. I set the intention, and the other coaches agreed, to start the next game with another circle. The kids willingly joined together on the cool grass as we again tossed our gloves into center. We coaches led an open conversation to point out that even professional baseball players manage to get on base only three out of 10 tries, explaining batting averages in the major leagues. When we asked why this was important to remember during our games, one of our young girls said, “So we don’t get discouraged when we strike out,” and all heads nodded in agreement.

There have been no tears since this conversation many weeks ago, and now the players return to the dugout for an optimistic high-five instead of a slow sad walk with their heads hanging down. Without fail, during their next at-bat they are cheerful and confident to try again.

We’ve incorporated circle into other aspects of our time together as well. Early on in the season, we started doing team-led stretching exercises where each player takes a turn instructing the group on a stretch of their choosing. Over the weeks, they’ve developed their favorites and enthusiastically take ownership of this part of the warm-up. Instead of being passive participants as a coach barks out instruction, there is a level of excitement and creativity as they eagerly step into their turn as demonstrator. The wisdom of the circle holds true, that when all are encouraged to equally participate, the group grows stronger.

The motivational poster created by the team.

The motivational poster created by the team.

When I showed up to our warm-up circle at our first play-off game bearing a large piece of paper and two markers, the kids were curious to see what was next. With open minds and thoughtful responses, we co-created a motivational poster that included their specific words of inspiration. In this circle, it was evident how much pride they poured into the exercise as they discussed which attributes they valued the most. There were volunteers aplenty when I suggested we hang our newly created poster on our dugout wall, and there it shall remain for the week of playoffs as a visible reminder of our team goals and ideals.

Our young team has yet to post a winning score, and we have but one game remaining in the season as I write this. As a coach whose motto is not “play to win” but rather, “play to learn,” I believe there are many accomplishments to celebrate as our time together comes to a close. Players who had very little previous exposure to the game are walking away with new skills as well as a firm grasp of the importance of teamwork and commitment. What they may lack in expertise and well-honed skill, they more than make up for in enthusiasm and camaraderie, knowing that connection and trust in each other is present in even the toughest moments. Players carried the spirit of circle within themselves as they took their field positions and turned to face the action at home plate. These children held the spark of shared community even when they were alone and under pressure in the batter’s box.

If the gift I’ve given these players as a coach is to be positive in their interactions, despite the challenges of losing every game, then we are winners in the more important game of life. I honor The Circle Way for shining the light into sacred spaces and places where our young athletes could find the courage, strength, and resilience to cope with the darkness of disappointment and uncertainty.

“Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters…Trust that meaningful conversations change your world.”
                                 Margaret J. Wheatley, from Turning to One Another

Emily Gillies

Emily Gillies

Having recently attended her first workshop in The Circle Way, Emily Gillies has been emboldened to dive deeper into being a practitioner. Incorporating the methodology into many facets of her professional and personal life, Emily's passion to continue this tradition is flourishing. She is employed as a support worker with at-risk families and uses The Circle Way techniques to foster connection and growth around difficult domestic issues. She also crosses paths with children and families in her community volunteerism, inviting open conversation to ball diamonds, church sanctuaries, committee meetings, and living rooms in her corner of Southeastern Saskatchewan.