This is a short story. As the headline says, it’s fiction. Hopefully the funny kind. It’s not about any one person in particular but I’ve seen bits of it in a few coaches over the years…
I just got our team list from the age group coordinator and your son or daughter is on my team for the coming season.
I will cut to the chase so you can start deciding if you really want a full season of me. If not, no worries, we’ll get you on another team pronto because I’m doing this my way and not looking for anyone’s input or approval.
This is my third go around with the kids’ first year of soccer. With my first, I was the regular, “Hey let’s have fun. Everyone’s going to play the same amount, winning’s not important” kind of coach. Turns out that most of them thought it was ‘fun’ to lay down on the field during the game or to wear Star Wars costumes on the field and start light sabre fights with opponents and/or teammates. It was grim. Never again.
So the second time around, I changed gears and we put a real emphasis on skill development and were quite demanding that kids come to practice ready to learn. It was a step in the right direction but I still wasn’t able to get my message through to the kids. I was still playing by the club rules and playing kids who didn’t really care about the game. They would look at me funny if I told them they actually had to run and try hard. I don’t like five year olds looking at me funny.
Now I’m on a mission third time around. I’ve realized the best thing I can do for your kids is balance out all the ‘everyone is equal, we’re all special in our own way’ Chairman Barney indoctrination they get in most other areas of life. Your kids need to learn there is nothing wrong with competing and they need to learn that now. They need to learn that success feels good and not succeeding doesn’t feel good. That winners prosper and those who don’t really care about it end up with a lot of Assistant Manager positions on their resume later in life.
I don’t care if we win or lose the games. Really. But I do care that your kids care about it. If we lose every game, I can live with that as long as your kids hate it and are trying to do something about it. You may hate me now as you read this, especially you first time parents, but you’ll thank me when your kids are 18 and they and all their friends are facing Grade 12 exams that will seal the deal on whether its university or Retail Associate at Shoe Warehouse.
Practices are at 6pm on Wednesdays. Those who miss training will have five minutes of game time to show that they deserve any more than that for the rest of the game.
I sent this out to the parents on my U6 team at the start of the season. I knew it would get a reaction. I wanted a reaction. I wanted to break from how things were done and get people to look at this differently. I wanted to pass on what the game had given me.
But what had this ageing centre back learned? Well, most of the important stuff was learned at the brutal end of the pitch, during rain-soaked semi final cup ties heading towards extra time. When fatigue had set in but the striker I’d been charged with harnessing still had a spring in his step. When some start thinking it’s good enough to have come this far. But that’s not the way of the centre back. That’s not the lesson that I had learned in my years of playing. The lesson was that those still ‘springy of step’ in the final minutes were to be met with the late challenge. The kind where six studs meet the tender bit between the top of the boot and the bottom of the shin pads. Instant spring-reduction…The lesson was simple. Stand and compete. Back your teammates and be accountable.
So now it’s time for me to share this knowledge of the game with those just getting their first pair of adidas. For as Camus once said, “All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football.” Not bad for a keeper.
“I hear the parents on your U6 soccer team are a little…taken aback.”
My buddy was wasting no time opening with this as we settled in for a quiet pint after our men’s team had finished training. I was more than happy to engage the topic. At this point we were about six games into the kids’ season.
“It’s great! They don’t know what hit ’em,” I said. “They don’t know what to say! They’re split in two camps. The whole league is actually! Half love me and are all over me to get their kid on my team next season. The other half are on the phone to Social Services. I’m waiting to see what comes first: teams refusing to play us or teams demanding to play us. I got other coaches emailing all the time asking how it’s going and what the response has been like.”
“At least you’re putting the kids first…” he adds with all the sincerity of a Christiano Ronaldo display of modesty.
“You laugh but that’s exactly what I’m doing. You should’ve seen the game last week. I stepped it up a full notch.” I had his full attention now. “Got a bit wound up.”
“Let’s hear it.” He settled in with his Stella, not sure yet if he was going to end up enlightened or disgusted. Bit like buying a ticket to a Lars von Trier movie.
“Well, they show up and most of them are having a moan about this and that. No focus on the game at hand. ‘It’s too cold, this shirt’s too big, the babysitter touched me here.’ blah, blah, blah. I can tell they’re not ready at all for the game. I get them warmed up and tell them they don’t look so hot but I stay calm. Game starts and we’re down three bagel in the first ten minutes. This little scrapper on the other team is just taking the piss out of us. The guy is tiny and he’s blowing by us like we’re pylons.
“I hold it together until half time and get them seated. They don’t know what’s coming. I don’t even pull them to the middle of the field so the parents can’t hear. I do it right on the sidelines with the parents all within earshot. I pace back and forth silently for a bit. Give them a few seconds to realize I’m deadly serious. Their chatter dies down.
‘So you guys are happy with this? Yeah? Down 5-0 to these guys? See that kid out there? The one who’s scored three? He’s a year younger than all of you! I think he’s still wearing pull-ups! He’s four and he’s wearing diapers and he’s making you guys look like you’ve never played before.’
“I can see some parents getting a bit agitated at this and I’m loving it. This is exactly why I’m coaching this age again this year. I lean it and faux yell.
‘You guys are playing like pussies!’
“That gets their attention. One little girl on the team raises her eyebrows. ‘My mom hates that word.’
Another boy nods, ‘My dad’s not allowed to say that!’
My buddy laughs awkwardly, “You are blazing some new trails here Robbo.”
“Yes, I am. But I’m ready for their reaction and let the kids know that I’m in charge.”
‘Well, I am allowed to say that. Davey, are you happy with this. This little Pampers boy running rings around you?’
“He says no, quietly. He’s one of the ones I can usually count on and I know if I get him onside with the message in the second half, others will follow.
‘Well, if you’re not happy about it, what are you going to do? What are all of you going to do?’
“I let it hang there a few seconds. Hoping to ignite something in the dignity department of their brains. Then, the clincher…
‘I’m not saying we need to kick him up in the air. I’m not, really. Not even suggesting it. You really shouldn’t have to straight leg him or lift an elbow in his grill. We were just practicing that stuff as a joke. For funsies. Right? And remember, as long as your first leg contacts the ball when you tackle, the second one can pretty much come through and do what you like and it’s not a foul. I’ll remind the ref of that.’
Now my buddy’s eyebrows raise. “You’re already leaning on refs. At U6 games?”
“I’m not leaning on refs. It’s ref development. I’m educating them as to what’s a foul and what’s not and I’m doing it in advance. I’m not yelling at them after they make a mistake. Anyways, at this point, I can’t stop myself from lifting my gaze above them to have a peek at the parents. I’m amazed I haven’t been hit by a metal MEC water bottle yet. By now though, several moms have closed in and are right behind the kids bench ready to snatch their kids and make a run for it. Their jaws are set. The tension is totally defeating the point of all that yoga they do.
“One of the sturdier moms is staring me down, or trying to.
‘You should really reconsider the words you’re using with these kids.’ The retinal daggers were fully dialed in.
Yeah, sure,’ I reply and I do really regret the next bit. It came out a bit harsh but I knew I had to quell the brewing disgust. I told her, ‘Surprised you could hear me from the Starbucks. Thanks for dropping by.’ I did smile when I said it by the way.
“That let the rest of the moms know where I stood on feedback. While they took that gem on board, I refocused on the kids as all good coaches do.
‘All I’m saying is how about a bit of pride. And make sure he doesn’t get past you and he doesn’t score again in the second half. Can you do that?’
“At this point, one of the parents jogs over having missed my spiel and pulls the half time snack out of the bag and brings it closer. Not what I wanted. I’m dealing with attention spans shorter than a Christano Ronaldo display of modesty.
’Donuts!’ They all yell.
“But I’m on it. I know how to turn this around to my advantage.
‘Yeah!’ I yell too. ‘Wouldn’t that be great! To have donuts at the end of the game? Wow! Fantastic!’
“It doesn’t compute in their little brains. ‘What does he mean..would be great?’ Donuts. Right here. Now. Their little faces contorted as brains worked through the verb conjugation and its implications.
’Yes, that would be fantastic.’ And I grab them and hold them above my head. ‘But bottom line on this team kiddies is you earn the donuts. You earn them and we really haven’t done that so far, have we? Davey, how are we going to earn the donuts?’
‘Don’t let diaper boy score again.’
‘Exactly. I’m saving a cruller for you Davey because I know you won’t let me down. How about the rest of you?’
“Now, did I tell them they had to win? No. Did I tell them that they had to score goals? No. Didn’t even drop any F-bombs. And some of the parents get this. Some of them get what I’m trying to do and why it’s so important at this age. I’ve got these kids at the tail end of their personalities being formed, their traits, being set in stone. And all these parents will go on and on about not wanting ‘a competitive environment’, that ‘they’re too young’ for this type of pressure. Not buying it. And they should know it themselves. Half of them are ball-busting lawyers and brokers that got their cabins at Whistler because they straight-armed their way to where they wanted to be. There was no ‘equal playing time policy’ when they were this age. The single greatest thing I can do for these kids right now has nothing to do with soccer or winning games. This is the last chance to get them to learn that competition is good, that wanting to compete and do well is important and if you don’t cram that into their brains at this age it’s too late.
“You think I care if they win? If they score a bunch of goals? They’re five! I don’t need to win games for validation. Before you teach tactics, before you teach basic skills, you teach – ‘that’s our ball and you’re not having it’. Determination, focus, competition. Life skills. They should give me a medal and put me in charge of kindergarten curriculum for the whole province!
“So the second half starts and the golden promise of post game snacks looms large. They are a team transformed. They are up for it and it’s beautiful to watch. It’s not long before even some, not all, of the Lululemon contingent is whooping it up on our sideline.
“Three of the dads come up during the second half with a quiet ‘That was perfect. That was great.’ And I just looked at them and smiled. ‘You’re whispering because your wife is absolutely steaming about what I said at half time, right?’
‘Totally. 100%! But I can deal with that later. This is great! Look diaper boy’s down again! Can you come and do a workshop for my staff next week?’
My buddy’s barely had a sip of his Stella the whole time I’ve been talking. He’s partly aghast but with a three year old at home that he knows he’ll be coaching in a couple of years he’s shifting through the initial wave of disgust and approaching curiosity.
“And you haven’t been called in to a Discipline Committee yet? No one’s calling for your head?”
“Not yet. There’s been a few emails go in to the Club’s Board I’m sure but they’re nicely balanced by people supporting me. This is creating a lot of debate and no one’s wanting to come down hard on me yet.”
“So what’s your measure of success at the end of the season.”
“Easy. When we win, they’re all happy but not gloating about it. When we lose, they’re unhappy but not blaming each other for it. And they don’t lose two in a row. And I don’t have to tell them that. It just naturally becomes important to them.”
From there the conversation drifted back to our own team and having a moan about our own chronic aches and pains as we age disgracefully.
The kids’ season is over now. Do I still stand behind the letter I sent out at the start? I do if you see it more as laying down a marker and not something to be taken literally. You win some in life and you lose some. If you engage in the pursuit and work with others around you and strive for success you will be more likely to win more than you lose. And how many games did we lose? Not sure as I didn’t record the scores. They’re not important. But losing was rare towards the end of the season. Rarer than a Christiano Ronaldo display of modesty.
Besides, I’ve had a couple of publishers sound me out about writing a parenting book. Guess they think there’s a market out there for my type of thinking …