"Dad, why didn't you take me out earlier! I'm really tired!"
She panted after every other word. Her face glowed red. Her hair was wet and matted to her forehead and the sides of her face.
"Great job, Beatrice," I said. "You are being aggressive and going after that ball!"
"But I'm tired!"
I patted her on the back. "I know, so take a break and drink some water. You're doing awesome."
"Thank you," she said. Then she was past it, eating fresh strawberries, the last halftime snack of our final game.
In the next moment, one of the team parents approached me. Her daughter was sick and had already thrown up twice on our sidelines. But that's not why she came over to talk.
"You know, you should tell the girls they can help our goalie and not just stand around and watch," she said.
I took a "zen" beat inside my head before I spoke. This wasn't an unreasonable request; she had the best intentions. In fact, the parents of all our players were really good all season, one of whom was my assistant coach, another one who also helped, and a few others who had soccer experience and made great suggestions throughout the season.
But I took a "zen" beat because it had been a long season. Sure, we weren't supposed to keep score, this is recreational soccer, and I had stopped keeping score early on when we lost every game by a significant number of goals. Game after game. Week after week. For someone who grew up highly competitive -- me -- and coming off of a winning season last year, it had been a long season this year. And yet I tried to keep my head up, because even with this last game, there was always a next time.
I put my hand on the parent's shoulder. "I understand. I do. I just want them to score for the first time in this final game. Or just pass consistently to one another. Or just dribble and drive the ball down the field. Or just kick the ball straight and farther than five yards. You know, those little things."
She smiled at my mild sarcasm and attempt at humor. "I know, but they really could help their goalie out so they don't keep getting the score run up on them."
"Got it. Thank you," I said.
"Coach, you just stepped in the throw up," one of the other players pointed out to me.
I looked down.
Maybe it was me. My job as coach for a U10 recreational team was to help them learn some soccer skills and some teamwork, regardless of having boys or girls, and in this case, it was my third year coaching our oldest daughter and an all-girl teams. But from the first practice to this very last game, it felt like some of the girls just didn't really want to play soccer. That they only wanted to goof off with each other instead. That's okay. They're kids.
Maybe it was me. There had been a lot of work travel this season for me and I missed some practices and one of our games. And then there was my hospitalization and disruptive infection that scared the bejesus out of me and the Mama (what I affectionately call my wife).
Maybe it was me, because as the season went on, it got tougher to inspire myself, much less the girls. Are they getting any of this? I thought again and again. After each game the Mama countered my fuming by encouraging me to keep encouraging them. I had the same conversations with my coaches and they encouraged me to stay positive and stay the course.
"They are playing better today, Coach," my assistant coach said.
"Yep," I said. "They are."
That's the thing -- positive improvements aren't always evident -- they are more subtle than that, like the incremental slow-growth of a coral reef. One minute there's nothing but barren shallows, and then 10,000 minutes later there's a layer of lovely colors that are alive and well.
And in the final game, there were all the lovely colors:
- Better dribbling for some.
- Better change-of-direction and ball control for others.
- Better passing to teammates for others.
- Better aggressive going after the ball for many of them.
- Even better defense helping the goalie keep the ball away from our goal.
And while the number of shots we got at the opponents' goal were again few and far between, there were those who played hard and seemed inspired to do so, had the "fire" as my assistant coach put it, like they really wanted to play well, individually and together, encouraging each other to keep going, even for the few who didn't want to.
Yes, it had been a long season, and besides being her coach and her dad, I was especially proud of our oldest, Beatrice, as she had truly improved over this last season (and the two seasons before this one). She wanted to play, liked to play, went after the ball and got it done. She even wanted to practice kicking the ball around in the backyard, and before this last game asked to play in the winter recreational league. I never thought I'd see that happen.
After the last game we had a team party, and as we were all leaving, one of my other players walked up to me and game me a hug.
"Thank you, Coach," she said.
I hugged her back and said, "No, thank you."
One after another most of the girls thanked me. One even wrote me a nice note. Maybe in the end it wasn't me; it was most of us together. And that should make us all feel like winners.