On Being a Soccer Coach

It’s for the kids.

The cold rain is blowing at an angle across the open soccer field. On the sideline, my bedraggled team huddles reluctantly in this late October maelstrom of rain and fouls and goals. Tired from the weather more than from their running, water bottles lay neglected at their feet.

As I watch them huddle with hunched shoulders in this driving rain, I wish I could tell them I know how they feel. That I know that justice is not being done out there on the field. I’m just their coach, though. I’m not here to teach life lessons on justice and fairness, winning in the rain, or why the game wasn’t called on account of the weather. I’m supposed to be here to teach them skills of side-footed passing, defensive off-side positioning, and the elegance of the goalie’s leap and catch.

Soccer has become an obsession among the suburbanly wealthy in America. More children in this country play soccer than any other sport, and the numbers in my own region are just as staggering. In a city of 30,000 people there are will over 2,000 kids ages six to 12 signed up for our program. And that’s just for teams who play in town.

With that many playing, a public effort is made at fair play, good sportsmanship, and balanced games. Players are placed on teams randomly, with the exception that we coach our own children. Coaches are given the opportunity to participate in US Soccer Association-sanctioned training sessions. We even make sure that every player plays an equal amount of time in small-sided games.

Back at our game, my goalie is in pain as he places the ball down for a goal kick. His tears mix with the cold rain on his face. He’s clutching his side and the referee hasn’t noticed. I tell him so. He blows the whistle and I run out to the box to see how he is. Elbowed in the ribs by an opposing player, I call out the substitute and help the injured 3rd grader back to the sidelines. His father runs out into the rain with a jacket. It’s the fifth or sixth uncalled foul and unsportsmanlike behavior I’ve seen today. The game starts up again and nobody outside of this little circle of coach and father, soaking-wet teammates pays any notice the injured boy.

We’re down by seven goals. Five of them were scored in the first half. During halftime the other coach comes over and apologizes for being ahead. He’s trying to play his worst players, he tells me. Trying to put his worst defenders up front and his slowest forwards in as often as possible. He’s sorry he’s winning. My team hears every word.

At practices, the coaches all try to cover the same drills and exercises. We try and teach the basics of passing and trapping, dribbling and running, shooting and blocking. Sometimes our team gets to practice on a full-sized field with a goal at either end. Most of the time, though, we’re playing on half the normal space and use orange cones to imagine where the goal might be. For the most part, the kids are good about it. We run our passing and shooting drills and work on some defensive positioning. When everyone shows up for practice, I try to run a scrimmage for the last 15 or 20 minutes of the evening. Lately they’ve been playing like friends.

During half-time, the team asks if they can kick and punch and elbow the way our opponents are. They don’t really mean it, but their frustration is palpable. Every one of them is carrying some kind of knock. A stepped-on ankle here, elbowed ribs over there. They tell me most are caused by the ministrations of just a couple players. The players I was told the other day were among the best in the league. Children of the coaches.

We left the field in the driving rain after losing 7 goals to 1. What lesson was learned here aside from those of shame, humility, and the futility of fairness?

They say the purpose of my volunteering my time is for the kids. They say that the kids are the important ones, that they are the reason for the day, that the kids are why we had gathered here in the rain. Why, then, do these kids look so sad?

Directions in Youth Soccer

I noticed while helping out at the U14 and U12 tryouts this past Sunday that there is a significant drop-off rate from U12 to U14. Specifically, it’s about fifty percent or so. After digging around a bit, I found out that the drop off rate is even worse from U14 to U16 and U18. In Beverly, we weren’t able to field a U16 team in one instance due to a shortage of players. The reasons are probably varying, but one that I heard really stood out to me.

Club teams in the area tend to take precedence over the town teams. The way our local leagues are structured, kids who choose to play in the club teams aren’t allowed to participate in the county system. You can’t blame them, really, as the club teams are more competitive and offer a greater chance for being noticed to the right players. That said, it can cost upwards of $2,000 to play in some of the club teams around here.

So, while the players get the chance to compete at the highest level and improve their game, the towns are unable to offer a high level of competition to other towns in the area. Also, kids who can’t afford the club team are left without the chance to play outside of school.

For here, I think we can solve this by engendering in the younger players a sense of pride in playing for the town. I suppose that, really, the sense of pride needs to be instilled in the parents, though. Whichever it is, if we can keep most of the players interested in the town teams, we won’t lose the competitive edge. With that edge, we will probably be able to hang on to more players. The cycle benefits everyone, in my mind.

Soccer on the basketball court

I just looked outside to see how my son’s doing on the playground and was greeted with the greatest sight a soccer freak like myself could see: he and a group of kids in windbreakers playing ad-hoc soccer on the basketball court. He had just scored and was running around the court, his arms out to his sides, cheering in glee. It’s underground. It’s magic. It’s what this country needs more of if we’re going to further develop our soccer standing around the world.

Kids playing soccer is almost natural. A simple and inexpensive game, everyone can play it with minimal effort. Started young enough, the magic of the feet and ball becomes second nature in the older players. Skill development is augmented by memories of playground and gym games with friends and foes and the skills come quicker without replacing the joy. It’s this kind of environment that fosters true soccer skills in the same way stick ball can turn into the most elegant form of baseball we’ll ever play.

Encourage your kids to play more often — the type of ball and shoes don’t matter on the playground — and you’ll find an energy to the game that maybe your local clubs or soccer organizations can’t generate on their own. Heck, go out and join them if you’re willing to leave the rules at home. All that matters is that feet are dancing happily around that elusive sphere in the grass, on the pavement, on the dirt.

Soccer is addictive and if allowed to come from the roots in which it was refined will become pervasive. It’s only a matter of time.