|Photo courtesy of Paul Turner|
I couldn't believe it; we'd been scouted. Just minutes before our game, during warm up, one of my player's parents approached me to relay that information.
"One of the hyper-competitive parents from the other team scouted us last week."
"Are you serious?"
"Yep. Supposedly they're undefeated and they wanted to find out who our strongest players are."
"Wow. We're in a recreational league. What the heck? They scouted us?"
"I know, right? Well, we haven't lost one yet either, so let's give them a run for their money, coach."
Let's give them a run for their money. As I called out our starting players to take the field, I realized I wasn't that surprised. I never would've scouted another team prior to playing them, not at this level, but I've always been pretty competitive myself. Every week we played I kept the running score of our games on my clipboard, and every week we chalked one up in the win column, except for one tie and no losses. That was something I was very proud of, but tried to temper during each game so as not to get the girls to caught up in the gut-wrenching angst of pure unadulterated competition -- some of them would there in a few years anyway. So, except for posting in our team website after the games for the parents benefit, I kept my coaching cool.
The game started and immediately we were schooled. Their team had crisper passing, better dribbling, tighter shooting and a stronger defense. Obviously they were drilled over and over again on these soccer fundamentals, and they obviously played a starter roster and only subbed in when needed. They quickly went up 2 goals to none well before the first half was done.
And that gut-wrenching competitive angst blew up inside me. I kept it contained, thankfully, but I second guessed my entire approach to coaching this scrappy yet talented U10 recreational soccer team. Yes, we drilled the basics during practice, and we scrimmaged together every single week. And yet, my focus has been teamwork and having fun, fun, fun no matter what level their girls are at. That's why everyone got a chance to play every game and rotated positions throughout the season. I subbed the girls in constantly through each half, sometimes because the forwards needed a break, but also to ensure everybody played as much as possible. There are 12 girls on the team and only eight players can play at any given time.
Momentum is a malleable thing, however. At some point late in the first half, we took it in our hands -- and our feet -- and made it our own.
Something changed on the field. Something I'd seen already occasionally during the season but only now recognized it for what it really was: pure, unadulterated teamwork. The girls settled down and it was like their individual identities were blotted out. They dribbled, passed, shot and defended like the other team, except more effortlessly, as if each girl were connected to the other, elementals on fire that scorched the earth beneath their tireless feet.
And they were having a blast doing it all.
Once inside the second half, the score became 2-1, and then 2-2. The entire second half we dominated the field and kept the ball dangerously near our opponents goal over and over and over again. The other team was getting tired. We were just getting started.
Blink. Another score! 2-3! We took the lead with only minutes left!
Wait, what? Offsides? Noooooooooo!!!
No. No. No. No. No. Crap! Keep it together, Coach. Mercy me.
Minutes later the referees blew their whistles and the game was over. It might as well been the end of every underdog sports movie I'd ever seen in my lifetime. In that moment everything I had intended to instill in my team had come to be on the field in front of me. And it gave me hope in an ever-changing world, a world going darker by the day. It gave me hope that our children may someday help this crazy friggin' world figure out how to play like a true team and celebrate together all the fragile freedoms we've fought so hard to secure and keep, that now seem to be slipping away.
Yes, I really did get all that from this game and I know what I'll be thankful for this Thanksgiving. Thank you, girls. You are the future looking bright.