Nice job, coach
by Jon Worley
Eighteen years ago, my wife and I coached a third- and fourth-grade soccer team in Battle Creek, Mich. My wife was the head coach, and I was the assistant. We played six games and lost five. I got to coach the last game of the season when my wife was out of town. We lost 4-1 after taking a 1-1 tie into the fourth quarter against the best team in the league. That next week, the opposing coach called us up at home to tell us that we had done a great job taking ten kids who nothing about the game and turning them into a real team. That was a nice phone call, to say the least.
Since then, my wife and I have coached or assisted with many of our boys teams. On the rare days when I have served as a head coach (always filling in), my record was 0-5. That 4-1 loss back in the spring of 1994? That was the kindest score any of "my" teams saw.
I have learned over the years that I am a pretty good student of the game. I understand soccer tactics and strategies game pretty well. But I'm at a complete loss when it comes to teaching kids (or anyone else) anything about the basic skills necessary to play, because I never learned them myself during the two years when I played soccer as a kid. The year I spent coaching my younger son's Kindergarten team (which played scrimmages and not games, which I do not count in my official record) was pretty much miserable. The kids generally didn't listen and I didn't have a clue. I retired from full-time coaching after that season.
Every Memorial Day weekend, there is a 4-on-4 soccer tournament in here in Takoma Park. It's not one of those "my kid is playing for a scholarship at Maryland" deals (which would be saying something, whether you have a son or a daughter). Takoma Soccerfest is a chance for friends to play a slightly different flavor of soccer on a weekend when all the local leagues are dark.
Two years ago, my older son's team won its division at Soccerfest. Both of my sons played last year, and both of their teams were eliminated after the round robin. Such is the life of tournament soccer.
This year, my younger son's league team fielded two teams for the tournament, and he found a spot on one of them. My older son wanted to play as well, so we put together a team of kids from the neighborhood (with a ringer thrown in). Five kids who play on four different soccer teams, although the neighborhood kids have all played together at various times in the past. I was doing the registration, so I listed myself as coach.
I had no real intention of serving as coach. Why saddle these kids with my O-fer record? But no one else really wanted to jump in, so I kept the title. I held one semi-organized practice, and I was impressed by the way the boys fell together nicely and passed with crispness and creativity. I told them that all I wanted them to do is play hard and charge any opponent with the ball. Don't worry about getting beat, I said. Just run as hard as you can at the player and make them make a play. That's about the extent of my coaching for that team.
The kids are good players. So I made the conscious decision to not coach during the games. This spring, my older son asked that my wife and I not holler anything during his games. So I told myself that I would coach only between the games, at halftime and any player who happened to be on the sideline at the time.
Last year's results were uninspiring, but it's precisely that sense of disappointment that helps you appreciate what it feels like when everything goes right. On Saturday morning, my older son's team won five straight games to push my head coaching winning percentage to .500. After a tight first game (they scored the winning goal on the last play of the match), they pretty much had their way with everyone else. They won their semi-final and final games by scores of 4-1 and 5-1. My son had three goals in all, including an amazing top-of-the-head flick on a goal kick that sent the ball into the goal from 15 yards away. Every one of the five players on the team played brilliantly. And they made me, the mute coach, look like a genius. All I did was substitute players every one or two minutes (the games were 20 minutes long) and encourage the players to stay aggressive.
I simply let those five boys play soccer. And they went out and crushed every team in their path. I know, it's probably unbecoming to say that--and probably even more unbecoming to say that I enjoyed the crushing--but it's all true, nonetheless. On that day, our team was in synch. The boys passed balls into space because they knew their teammates would find them. They sold out all the way when backtracking on defense. And they physically intimidated players who had 50 or more pounds and a few inches on them.
Did I have anything to do with that? Did my implacable demeanor and general calm exterior inspire those performances? Probably not. I gave them the stage, and they took every inch of that. And now they're champions, which is pretty cool.
My younger son's team did alright, too. After finishing fourth in the round-robin (and barely qualifying for the playoffs), his team won its semifinal 1-0 and then won the championship on penalty kicks after tying 1-1 in the final. My younger son scored his team's only two goals in the playoffs, and he scored a penalty in the tie-breaker round as well. I loved his assessment of the pressure of the penalty: "I didn't worry about it. I knew I was going to kick it in. And if I missed, then I missed. But I wasn't going to miss."
Some days, you just don't miss. And those are the days when the words, "Nice job, coach," have a bit more meaning.
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