Reese Witherspoon slides into home … headfirst
Sue Enquist led UCLA to 10 national titles during her legendary 27-year softball coaching career, but it is her recent tutelage of Oscar-winning actor Reese Witherspoon that has earned her a spot on the red carpet. Enquist, 53, trained Witherspoon for her role as a former softball star in the film “How Do You Know,” which opens in theaters Friday. Abigail Lorge caught up with Enquist, an espnW advisory panel member, to chat about coaching an A-lister.
Abigail Lorge: How did your involvement with this movie come about?
Sue Enquist: I’ve been involved from the inception. Jim [James L. Brooks, the film’s writer and director] was doing the research for the movie about six years ago, and he went to a number of different sports to gather a patchwork of stories about getting cut from a team not on your own terms. And then, about two years ago, he made the decision that this character was going to be a former pro softball player.
AL: When were you first introduced to Reese? And when you met her, did you think she could look the part, given how petite she is?
SE: I was introduced to her in the fall of 2009, when Jim wanted me to teach her what it feels like to train at the highest level and, more importantly, to give her an idea of what it means to be a champion athlete in and around other champions in a team environment. As Reese says, “Acting’s an individual sport, and I learned how to be a team player.” And so in the fall of 2009 I went to the studio to meet her for the first time because the studio wanted, and Reese wanted, to make sure there was a connection there.
I just needed to know, am I a colleague just training her, or do you want me to be her coach? I needed Jim to tell me what kind of relationship to develop with her. And he said “It should be an authentic relationship, as though she’s your player.” To be honest, I was a little relieved, because I was most comfortable being in that role when it comes to teaching.
So when I walked in the room and she stood up, the first thing she said was “Hi, Coach.” And I thought, “Oh, this is going to be really easy.” She was just so engaging, and so respectful of the sport of softball and how privileged she was to be able to play an Olympic athlete. And when she stood up to hug me it took my breath away because she is no bigger than a minute. She is tiny.
AL: And cute as a button.
SE: Oh, yeah, she’s adorable. But the softball coach is thinking, “That’s not going to allow her to hit a curveball.” But I had to remind myself that sport doesn’t know how big you are, sport doesn’t know what color your skin is, sport doesn’t know how much money is in your pocket. If she just came in and was true to her work, she was going to get amazing payoff. And I was so impressed with how she progressed so quickly. She was wonderful at that and so honest. There would be days she would come up and she would say, “You know what, I’m not all here today.” And I’d say, “OK, give me 100 percent of what you’ve got.”
AL: How long and frequent were the training sessions?
SE: The sessions were about 90 minutes apiece. For four months, we would meet once or twice a week. I phased it in. First it was a skill assessment, and then it was sport-specific skill assessment. I wanted her to be a middle infielder, second-base side, because then size would not be as much of an issue.
AL: So she was the Dustin Pedroia of this team. Is she athletic at all?
SE: Yeah, she definitely is coordinated and she is athletic.
AL: Is she a righty?
SE: Yes, she’s a right/right. We focused on her defense because I knew we were going to need to show a high level of athleticism and you can’t fake hitting. But I wanted to see her develop on the field, and see how far I could push her. And I realized she had no limits.
She said, “Keep going, take it further.” And I said, “OK, well, why don’t we see if you can slide?” Because sliding is so aggressive, and so physical, and there’s a high level of coordination that’s involved. And she picked it up right away and I said, “What do you think about headfirst sliding?” And I’m thinking, “This would be incredible if we could get her to headfirst slide.” And she said, “OK!” There’s a level of confidence that comes with the unknown. But it was about her spirit. Her spirit said, “I’m going for it, I trust you.”
I knew that I was dealing with somebody who was extremely successful in her industry and wanted to be very careful with her body. And at the same time, I wanted to protect her, because there were anywhere from 10 to 20 paparazzi every day at the stadium that were climbing the fence and trying to get in. And after we did the breakdown of the skill, she learned how to slide literally in two days.
AL: Did that make the movie?
SE: Yes, it did. That’s one of the two [softball] scenes. And anybody that’s played the game knows, if you can headfirst slide, that’s huge. And Reese Witherspoon did it. As a coach, I’m proud of her skill, of how she headfirst slides. Of course we were training her with a mask. We had to protect her face. She never wanted to wear the mask. She was saying, “Please let me just take it off.” And I said, “Nope, I’ve got strict orders to protect you.”
So she comes in one Monday and she’s got a black eye. She had gone and played catch with her friends to practice, and got shot in the eye. I was livid, and she started making some sort of comment about how it had happened, and I simply said to her, “Who had the glove on, sister?” And she learned very quickly that our Bruin bubble has high accountability. Come in, explain what happened, and take responsibility.
But she was absolutely terrific, and I forged a relationship with her, and I know for a fact that Reese and I will stay connected for always. There was a bond there that got established. She never really had an athletic coach, and so now she has one.
AL: Did you work on hitting with her?
SE: We worked on every part of the game, so she could understand how daunting it is to be able to throw and hit. But you won’t see that [in the movie]. Did she hit in training? Yes, she did. Can she hit the ball? Yes, she can. At the end of the day, straight up, the girl flat-out can headfirst slide. It’s powerful because we see her learning how to do it and then you see the end result in the movie.
AL: How do you teach that, given the fear factor?
SE: The more intimidated you are, the more vulnerable you are to getting hurt. First your face hitting the dirt, then your neck getting snapped, then your lower back jamming, then you’ve got knee and ankle issues if you land left or right. So technically it’s very difficult to do, but if you have a go-for-it attitude it’s very easy because that means you’re a non-thinker in the moment.
I’m so proud of her, knowing all along that it was not a softball movie. But please believe, the softball world, we are so claiming her.
AL: How did you teach her about being part of a competitive team?
SE: One day I brought all of our local Olympians in. So there were Jessica Mendoza, Jennie Finch, Andrea Duran, Amanda Freed, Tairia Flowers, Natasha Watley, Laura Berg, Crystl Bustos, Lovie Jung … we got all of them there for a day, so Reese could really get a feel for the energy when they all get together, and I think that was something she really enjoyed.
AL: Were any of the Olympians starstruck by Reese?
SE: They were great. You had Jennie Finch, who is in my opinion one of the greatest players in the history of the sport, and Jess Mendoza, who is one of the greatest players in our sport. And then you have Reese Witherspoon, who is going to go down as one of the greatest actresses. They went through the icebreakers and then it becomes one big championship bubble. There is no separation. And they were asking her, “How do you show up every day?” And she talked about there’s a discipline to be true to your work because if you’re true to it, you have engaged who you need to be in that moment. And then that will translate into a movie or a television show. And it’s the same way with athletics. You can’t fake the game; you can’t fake it if you want to be on the top and stay on top.
AL: How are some of those athletes reacting to the fact that softball is no longer in the Olympics?
SE: Each one of them angles in differently according to how they’re involved with the sport. But I know all of these kids very well. The one common theme with all of them is a broken heart.
AL: Is there hope for softball to make it back into the Games by 2020?
SE: To be honest with you, it’s so complicated and everyone is still recovering from the appeal and the decision that was made. It’s devastating to think about how a team sport that was so successful internationally has been put on the back burner.
AL: It seems like softball has global appeal. It’s big not just in North America, but in Asia and Australia.
SE: It does have broad appeal, but there are parts of the world where we need to have further engagement, whether it be in Africa, whether it be in the Middle East, and other areas that are safe to travel to, where we can build up those opportunities for women across the globe. And although we are not in the Olympic family, we continue to be strong in our USA program. But I think our challenge as a sport is for every entity that is strong in our country — whether it’s NCAA softball or USA Softball or pro softball or a professional tour — we all have to figure out a way to work together.
AL: Back to Reese: I’m curious about what she is really like. Is she a high-maintenance diva, as would be commensurate with her A-list actress status, or is she truly a normal girl?
SE: She is a normal girl. She is somebody that is so transparent and engaging, and for me it was an opportunity to bring two worlds together — an athletic world and an entertainment world. And at the end of the day, what I learned was that champion DNA doesn’t wear a uniform. She came to us with all the important guiding principles that you need to be excellent. All we did is we put a uniform on her. And we’re thrilled that she played the sport of softball.