Around the neighborhood, I’m known as the coach, though I’m the least suited person imaginable for the job. I say this not only because I can barely even make it to practice, let alone run it, but because no one around me does anything I want them to. The only way I get my dog to come in is to be armed with bacon. How am I supposed to lead 15 10-year-olds onto the soccer field?
Nevertheless, I have persisted. Also, no one else stepped up, even after my pleading. So I read the soccer coaching newsletter I get by e-mail and peruse the latest skill-building drills. I set down the bright orange cones dutifully every Friday and calmly negotiate with the other coaches vying for space on the town fields. I envision having them do trust falls.
I show up early to the games every Saturday and think of new ways to convince my son that a stop at the ice cream truck would not be a good idea before running around for an hour. I remind everyone to equip their child with shin guards and to bring water, shooting for two-thirds compliance.
On both days, things come apart. At practice, the boys push and shove in the queue to start passing and shooting drills. There is criticism. There are hurt feelings. They ask if we can just do a scrimmage now, and then plunk down on the pitch to tie the laces of their cleats, or run away without explanation, or argue like a baseball manager whether a ball was out or whose throw-in it is.
At the games, I am peppered with requests: “Can I be on offense?” “Can I play goalie?” “Can I go in now? How about now?” They appeal so earnestly, while monitoring the playing time of others. My goal, of course, is to get everybody playing time. I’m also intent on conveying my knowledge of the game, having grown up in soccer-frenzied Wilton, Conn., in the 1970s. But knowing the game isn’t the same as teaching it to 10-year-olds.
I feel like I should project more confidence, and I kick myself every weekend for not investing in a whiteboard like they use in the final seconds of NBA games. As it stands, my authority is routinely questioned. When I say it’s OK that a shot on goal veered wide, I am corrected: That was not a shot on goal, that was a really lame attempt at a pass.
Failure comes in many different shades. I forget to make sure someone brings snacks. I squirm at contradictory admonitions shouted from the sidelines. Arms get crossed in resentment after a substitution. The other day, we had the ultimate miscue — a kick off my player’s foot into our own goal. I think he was trying to pass it to our goalie, but I can’t be entirely sure.
As I calibrate all the pedagogical considerations, there is my own grown-up challenge: the fine line between not taking it too seriously and, well, taking it seriously. I check out how the other coach makes his substitutions, and rotate in players to counter his moves. I patrol the sideline.
One-on-one conversations seem to work well, quick chats as if on a pitcher’s mound: “Always better to kick it up the sidelines, rather than in front of your own goal”; “think about passing to where your teammate is about to be, rather than where he is now.”
Above all, I stay positive. It’s always no problem when the other team scores. My applause is vigorous at any good pass, or when someone clears the ball away just when the opposition is stepping up the pressure. Toward the end of a recent 3-nil loss, I bellowed that it was the last minute of the game, so let’s really make it count.
Someone’s grandmother came up to me afterward and said she really appreciated my refraining from negative feedback. Inside, I had been aching to score at least one goal, just as much as my players.
There are moments of progress. The goalie gathers the ball confidently to his chest, then drop-kicks it to midfield. The striker dishes to the wing, who bends in a score that might as well have been a piece of sculpture. At the end of every game we line up crisply for handshakes. I’ll see many of the kids later around town still wearing our bright-red team jerseys, and choose to think this reflects not laziness but team pride.
The kids are growing in other ways. It doesn’t cut it to get them to do drills by making it a game of superheroes or ninja warriors. They’re over that. They have also stopped obsessing on the team name. We started out as the Steamers, then turned to the Purple Grandpas, and then the War Tortoises. Now we’re just Team #8, the Lincoln School team. Now it’s about getting out and playing.
I had nothing to do with that, other than to stop the senseless banter myself about what we called ourselves. And maybe that’s the thing – that old Woody Allen principle that 80 percent of life is just showing up. I feel the guilt of doing something half-baked or ineffectively, wedged into a furiously busy professional career. But I do the job.
The last two games of the spring season are coming up, in synchronicity with the end of school. And as much as I tell myself there’s no way I can do this again in the fall, I’ve been searching for a coach’s clipboard on Amazon. I’m going to buy it unless the parents get together and get me one first. Maybe the one with the classy leather cover.