Earlier in June I “coached” a soccer game for perhaps the final time, 19* years and 11* seasons after the first.
The quote marks appropriately modify whatever it is I actually do with recreational soccer, the community-based, volunteer-driven little sister to travel soccer. We practice rarely, with players exhibiting a wide range of talent for and interest in the game, and achieve only a smidgen of what I see in my mind’s eye.
Success on the field was not measured by a record. We kept score, but not standings, and results aligned directly with the level of athleticism and aggression you were gifted at roster time. Over the years I lined up teams, soccer-wise, that were embarrassingly good and those that made me think of “The Island of Misfit Toys.”
What I celebrated were the little individual victories that suggested improvement. One player might do a pull turn in a game, another might learn to play “off his line” as a goalkeeper, and yet another might just develop enough focus and confidence to run up and down the field the right direction and even go for the ball.
The other reward came in the relationships with dozens of kids and their parents over the years. That starts with my own children.
When Amy and I married in 1999, her daughter Liz, 8 at the time, was ecstatic in part because she could now sign up for soccer. Another adult in the house meant there was someone available to help get her to practice.
It also meant there was another sucker to be roped into coaching.
Truthfully, I’d always looked forward to coaching youth sports. I love kids, love sports and am full of critically helpful but deeply unwanted advice on all matters of competition and life. Soccer was not the anticipated vessel for this advice — I’d never played or really been around the sport — but the man from the club who called urge my volunteerism assured me that my assistant coach had plenty of experience. Knowing that I could lean on him, I agreed to do it.
My assistant coach’s experience, I soon learned, could be described by a soccer term: “nil.”
For three years, I muddled through “coaching” girls-only teams at the under-10 and under-12 age groups. When I started they simply kicked the ball hard and chased it in packs, but by the end of that third season — with a lot of kids who held over from year to year, accumulating all my sage advice — they were able to kick the ball hard and chase it in packs.
But along with getting to know some great families in my new community, those three years helped forge a bond with Liz that may not have happened any other way. To be sure, we fought and argued, and I kicked her out of practice, and she called me “Matt” instead of “Dad” when I needed to be punished. Today, however, I’m always “Dad,” in no small part because of those years of soccer together.
Liz also turned out to be a pretty damned good soccer player. She emerged from her rec experience to play seven years of travel soccer and represent Wisconsin in a regional Olympic Development Program event. We cheered her on throughout the Midwest and beyond. Meanwhile, I earned a fantastic job with the Milwaukee Wave indoor soccer team and absorbed soccer knowledge from pros like Keith Tozer, Art Kramer and many others.
The result of these experiences was that when it was time to sign up Ryan for under-8 soccer in 2009, I actually knew something about the sport.
Immediately upon “coaching” Ryan’s team, I put this newfound knowledge to good use by organizing training sessions with specific …. oh, I can’t do it. At that age, most kids are ready for little more than basic motor skills, socialization and “touches on the ball.” Even passing is beyond the cognitive grasp of all but a few. It’s them, the ball and the goal, and nothing else matters.
However, you do see those little glimpses of growth, and they are fun. Without a doubt, the under-10 years were my favorite. Those kids are old enough to put a few things together, but young enough to still hang on your every word and try to improve. Under-12 was similar, and I’m proud that two kids I coached at that level moved on to the select program at our club with great success.
The first year of under-14, however, was different. All the players were middle schoolers, had little interest in what a volunteer grownup had to say, and acted like it. Months before the final event in early June, I’d decided to hang it up. The only hesitation was Josie.
Just as Liz and I built a relationship through soccer, the time I spent coaching Josie — eight consecutive years, from when we snuck her onto my team as a kindergartner to this last year as a seventh-grader — allowed me to maintain a connection I feared I would lose without the game. (Ryan, who still plays travel soccer, gives me no such worry.)
Josie, however, is a focused young lady with the maturity that says she knows when it’s time to stop the silly. She is as tired of the practice chaos as I am. She may continue playing, but understands my desire to find another way to spend my fall and spring. We will find other ways to stay close, such as me barging into her room regularly and peppering my reticent daughter with questions about her day, her friends, her classes and her phone habits.
I have said I’d like to coach again some day. I know the age I like, and I am confident I can help an interested young player build both some skills and a love of the game. Ideally, I’d find a way to be with players who aren’t blessed with the same support as the kids in our affluent suburban club, as a way to perhaps make more of a difference.
For now, though, I’m just going to be a fan. Ryan begins high school soccer this fall, and the U.S. men’s national team starts World Cup qualifying next spring. I will “coach” both teams from my seat, and I figure nobody will listen this time, either.
* Back in the mid-1990s, while divorced and living in Marion, IN, I was coaxed into coaching a YMCA team indoors during the winter. The kids had to be no more than first graders, if I remember, and I was given a team more suited to yachting or polo than soccer. There was a Wesley, a Spencer, a Caitlin and an Ashley. When our first game kicked off, little Wesley turned, looked at the sideline, and slowly dissolved into tears.
Every other team, it seemed, had a Bart or Steve who was the size of a fifth-grader, could smash the ball from one end to the other and kept very loud count of the score as it escalated in his team’s favor.
If I’m being honest with the timeline, that was the first time I “coached” soccer.