When I was little, soccer was just coming to the States as something big in California, and by the time I was in third grade, most of my friends played it. I remember playing in the hot fall sun, running up and down the field and following the ball, since I didn’t know how to hold my position, and my grandfather asking my mother if I was going to have a heart attack because my face was beet red. In one of my first games, I scored two goals, which thrilled me since my dad took me out for ice cream sundaes to celebrate. Soon after, however, the coaches realized that I could kick far and was better on defense. I became the full back sweep, the last person before the goalie. I prided myself on protecting the goal and clearing the ball down the field. I ended up playing five years through my childhood and one year in high school before I hung up my cleats. I wasn’t the best player– some of those went on to Division 1 soccer in college– and I wasn’t the worse. But I loved it.
Because it was the seventies and eighties, my coaches were mostly women, some of whom had never played soccer, since the boys got the more experienced coaches. The coaches I had for most of my years were a team of two women, one of whom, my main coach, was disabled. She had an aggressive form of MS, so each year she coached us, she was less mobile. The first year she tired easily, which is why she had her assistant to help. By the last year, she came to practices in a walker. I never saw her kick the ball, and I’m not sure the assistant was much better at soccer, but they knew how to coach, we did well as a team, and most importantly we also learned a lot about life.
When my daughter was in second grade, I decided that I wanted to coach my own team, not because I had been a great player, but because soccer had taught me so much that I wanted to pass on. When I got my team list, which was supposedly a “random, computer-generated list” I realized that I was given all the beginners except my daughter, who was a strong player. (My husband, who understands statistics, reminded me that this was not random, but generated by a mom who worked for the town and wanted her daughter on a team of stars.) I had 14 six and seven year-old girls, and part of the challenge was getting them to focus long enough to learn the game of soccer, in between chatting and cartwheels. We were the Bad News Bears of soccer, inexperienced and expected to lose, but the good news is that none of the parents were pushy, because these families wanted their girls to have fun, not to push them to get on travel soccer by age eight.
The nice thing about our team is that no one expected us to do very well– I wasn’t a known coach and the team had almost no talent, or so people thought. I read books and watched videos about how to coach, and every week we had circle time before our practice started where we made sure the girls knew each others’ names in the early weeks, and could talk about what was working and not working on the team in later weeks. We played both in the fall and the spring, and each week the girls got better and better, so that in the final game, which was the championship against the hardest team– the team that had all the star players– I reminded my team that I was proud of them no matter what, but that since no one was expecting anything of them, this was their chance to shine. And shine they did. We won, to the other teams’ shock. We won in spite of rain and mud and injuries and the other team so sure that they were going to win. I have never seen such a triumphant group of little girls, their white shirts covered in mud, with huge toothless grins on their faces.
My daughter is back playing soccer in high school, having taken a few years off, since she and we didn’t want her to enter the intense world of travel and club and select soccer. My son, however, begged us to be on the travel team, so finally he tried out at the end of 6th grade for the last two years of the program. His team plays hard and he’s improved as a player, but the boys aren’t particularly nice to each other and after months of playing don’t really talk to each other off the field. Most of the parents and many of the team just aren’t friendly, as though we are rivals of some sort, competing for the few soccer scholarships handed out, when in reality most of these kids will never play Division 1 or professionally. I’m not the first to point out that youth sports, particularly soccer, has completely lost its way, which is sad to see, because the lessons I learned have served me my whole life.
Soccer is so much more about “going for it” in general than it is about scoring goals. It’s about your personal best, even if that isn’t perfect. It’s about embracing the process of learning, not the end result, about learning grit and being kind to yourself when you make a mistake or lose, and being gracious when you win. It’s about friendship and fun and team work, and realizing that we all have an important position to play. These were the messages my coaches passed on, two older women whose kids had been long grown but loved being part of little kids’ lives. How to play became less important than how to be on a team, how to be in the world, how to show up on a field and go for the goal, whether you make it or not.
Some of my team in 2011– my daughter is the tallest in the middle.