Responsible parenting and leadership are a start. In between reaching for the sky (Toy Story rocks).

Screw the darkness. I prefer the lightness of Pop.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

How You Play the Game

"I got this feeling, 
I can't keep it down anymore
Bring me some healing,
Saint Cecilia, carry me home 
to your house of broken bones..."

–Foo Fighters, Saint Cecilia

Bryce, our youngest, trailed behind me eating her post-game popsicle. We headed to our car after another soccer game of full of injuries, tears and run-up scores. On us. Again.

We got in the car and drove to meet up with the Mama (what I lovingly call my wife) and Beatrice, our oldest. Bea had her game earlier, which we watched until we had to leave for our game.

"Bryce, you hustled today. Good job. It's so much fun watching you weaving in and out of those players while you dribble the ball up the field. Do you have fun while you're playing?"

"Yes, I do," she said. "Most of the time."

"When is it not fun?"

"When everyone is sad and the other team keeps scoring."

"Yep, I know. Some of those teams and bigger and older and more experienced than us."

"Yes, and sometimes they kick the ball really hard," Bryce said. I glanced at her in the rearview mirror and saw her grab her upper chest where a ball had hit her full force earlier in the game.

"Does it still hurt?"

"No," she said. "I'm okay."

We drove in silence for a few more minutes, and then I thought, Well, we can't do anything about the way the teams were put together, but at least most of our girls hustle most of the time.

"Bryce, thank you for playing. It's been fun being your coach. Only three more games left, so hang in there. Love you."

"Love you too, Daddy."

This is the fourth year I've coached recreational soccer -- the first three years I coached Beatrice's teams and this year I'm coaching Bryce's U10 team. They're a great group of girls, some of whom have played before, and many others who have not. Each year my goal is for the girls to learn some skills and improve their dribbling, passing, defending and scoring. To learn a basic understanding of the game and how to play together as a team. And to have fun.

That's been the harder part, though. The part about having fun. We tell them we want them to have fun, and then most of the other teams this year are bigger and more physical and more organized and score on us over and over again. The old sports cliche of "it's not whether you win or lose -- it's how you play the game" sours quickly when you're getting pummeled. I see it in their hot and tired faces every week, and I feel it as their coach, as does my assistant coach, the parents who help and all their parents who come out each week to watch.

We know it gets tough when the other team keeps scoring, but most of our girls hustle hard most of the time, and that’s all we can ask. We keep trying different drills and creative tactics to keep them growing and moving, and the parent encouragement certainly helps.

The reality is only some of the girls will go on to playing competitive soccer and many others will grow up and do other things, maybe fondly remembering the year or two they played soccer, or maybe not.

During this particular game, the one referenced above, the girl I had playing goalie the first part of the half was getting scored on, and what I didn't know was how upset she got because of it. Her dad had walked over to give me the heads up, that it was my call if I wanted to sub her out, and that's what I did. I put Bryce in as goalie for the rest of the half, a position she's enjoyed playing.

The girl who had been playing goalie came off the field with tears streaming down her face. Her voice cracked and she struggled for breath because of her intense crying.

"I let the team down," she said over and over again. "I let the team down. I'm sorry."

We told her she did not, that she worked hard out there and did her best. She settled down and then I got her back out there. Later in the game, the same girl got tripped up by the other team and went down hard. Everyone took a knee and I ran out on the field. I got her to stand up and she favored her right ankle, so I tried to maneuver her so her arm was around my neck and I could walk her off. But it didn't work, so I just picked her up and carried her off the field.

But I'm nobody's hero; all I could think about as I carried her off was how I had let the team down. That my focus on having fun wasn't serving them well. That maybe we should've practiced more. Drilled more. Played the best girls at their strength positions instead of rotating them to play both offense and defense to learn the game. That I shouldn't have missed those two games when I ran the local event and then had to travel for work.

Except, these girls are 8 and 9 years old, and this is recreational soccer. The crush of competitive life will come soon enough, so I shook off my self-doubt and finished the game with pride, even with witnessing yet again their hot and tired faces. I grounded myself in the reasons I've volunteered to do this year after year: to coach my own girls and to teach all of the team members a basic understanding of the game and how to play together as a team.

And to have fun. At least a little fun.

After the game I got a note from one of the parents that read:

You're doing a great job, and the kids are doing a great job!  They are really having fun together, they have good team spirit, they never give up, and they are all learning and improving! I know it's been challenging to get lined up quite a few teams that seem to be composed of quite a few older and/more experienced players than our group, but you keep things very positive for the kids and all of us. We are super lucky to have you!

I needed that. I'm not ashamed to say that I really, really needed that. I don't know if either of our girls will play again next year, or if I'll coach again, but we're all going to finish out this year strong as a team, tears and all. Winning is great, the competitive side of me knows that all too painfully well. But in the end, it is how you play the game. Not how it plays you.

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