Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Sometimes it just all comes together

I was nervous yesterday at 5:25.  I stood alone on the Metzger park soccer field, hoping all my girls would show up in time for the 5:30 kickoff.  The opposing coach had his entire entourage warming up, taking shots on goal, and calling a cheer involving the team name.  My co-coach wasn't going to make it that night, so I was flying solo.  So at 5:25 it was me, the refs, and all of them.  And I was nervous.  But if you didn't know me very well, you wouldn't be able to tell, as I stood there with my usual inscrutable mask on, standing still and relaxed, effectively covering my panic.  It's something I've done my whole life, and people who know me can see right through it, just as I can spot strong emotion behind a mask when I see other people do it.  It's like looking in a mirror.

I had arrived at 5:00 with Stacey, Liberty, and Scout, and the kids and I kicked a ball around while Liberty sat in the shade and pulled out a book she was reading for school.  By about 5:20, only one other of our team's players had shown up, so I sent her and Stacey out canvassing the park to make sure people weren't at the wrong field. So when the refs showed up, only I stood on the field representing our team.

Fortunately, our players started trickling in, with Stacey bringing up up the rear.  By kickoff we had 8 players, enough to field with no substitutes.  The position chart I had drawn up before heading to the game had to be scrapped, and I assigned positions off the top of my head based on who had shown up, decided to stick with my controversial aggressive 3-2-2 formation, despite being shorthanded.  That's 3 forwards, 2 midfielders, and 2 fullbacks, rather than the more acceptable and defensive 2-3-2 that most teams play, and that I had long since let my co-coach talk me into.

By a couple minutes after kickoff, a 9th player showed up, so we had a substitute to rotate players out when they were winded.  Up until that game, we usually had 4 substitutes, letting us keep everyone really fresh, and creating controversy about who got to play longer and who had to sit and watch from the sidelines.  I love the players on our team, I really do, but it's so easy for 11/12 year old kids to get angry when they think they've been treated unfairly compared to their peers.  It takes a lot more politesse than I typically wield in my normal, curmudgeonly existence to keep everyone happy.  But I try.  None of that was a problem yesterday, though.  When someone looked like they were about to drop, I pulled her and put the player on the sidelines in her spot.  Wash, rinse, repeat.

Within the first 5 minutes of the game, the opposing team scored.  They had clearly practiced a play to dribble down the sidelines and pass to the goal box, where a teammate would sneak in to trap the pass and take a quick shot.  Our defense was surprised by the play the first time, and our goalie, who had never played goalie before and was nervous about the whole affair, wasn't able to get a hand on the shot.

My reaction was pretty passive, atypical of rec league kids' coaches.  The opposing coach was a good example of the type more common in the league: a shouty micromanager brimming with testosterone, sporting a clipboard, a buzz cut, a polo shirt too wide in the shoulders, and with a touch of a beer belly.  In contrast, I had my fitted T-shirt from threadless.com, orange with a picture of a cartoon fox on it, a full head of hair pushing afro-size, a full beard, and no accessories.  Or beer belly.  I looked out of place, and I maintained my reserve and calm when my team got scored on, and at that point I suspect the other team expected to walk all over us.  Except...

Except my team is full of fantastic, spirited, intelligent kids who get enough support and encouragement from their parents and coaches to believe in themselves, and they don't give up when things get challenging.  And I don't freak out or scold them when things aren't perfect.  And they grow confidence, and they read the field well, and they learn from mistakes - mistakes like letting someone sneak up and trap a pass and take a quick shot, which never succeeded for the opposing team again for the remainder of the game.

Our goalie got her footing and started blocking shots, our defense kept the opposing forwards outside, our midfielders and forwards got the ball upfield and kept the pressure on the other team's defense, and we quickly came back and tied the game.  Throughout it all, I had encouraging words to give, applause and a yawp of "good job $x" when $x made a good move.  I had only minimal direction to the players during the game that had just slightly more content than "go get 'em!", and I took the time to go grab little Scout and bring her to the sidelined kids (the substitute, and the 10th player, who has a broken thumb and can't play, but came to the game shortly after it started in support of the team) where Scout entertained the older kids with her boundless cuteness.

Some of the other team's players looked over at our antics during the game with stoic expressions, hiding strong emotions behind a mask.  Hiding jealousy and sadness, longing to have a game atmosphere with levity, and a coach who wasn't a madman who fills the game with nonstop, loud direction, telling each player where to stand, who to pass to, who should go to the ball.  I never got indoctrinated into that type of crap as a kid, and I hate it when I see it.

Like I have during most of the 14 previous games I've coached, I felt heartache for the other girls, who want someone to be proud of them and tell them what a good job they're doing, who want to figure out how to play without the constant fear of being scolded for any small infraction, and are subjected to insanity and anger from men with chips on their shoulders, trying to accept that it's normal and OK to be shouted at over a ball game by the person whose job is supposed to be teaching you.  The quick glances and the hidden emotion pain me every time I see it, but they also tell me I'm doing the right thing on my side.

We scored again before the end of the half, going up 2-1.  I say "we", but in fact it was the same player who scored the first goal, the first girl other than Stacey to show up to the game, eager to play, eager to do well.  She was the largest kid on the team last season (but now Stacey is about half a head taller than she is), and was known for her large frame and for powerful but sloppy shots.  We'd keep feeding her the ball and she'd keep pounding it toward the goal, and eventually it would go in.  Not much of a strategy, but she ended up being the top scorer last season, and her mom expressed happiness at her success and gratitude at being placed at forward.  On other teams she had been relegated to goalkeeper, the usual place most coaches put a kid who is a little heavy and slightly disagreeable and cocky, or defense, where her wild strong kicks are perfect for clearing.  I enjoy the whole disagreeable, cocky angle, so that wasn't a problem, and I like to see kids both grow and be happy with what they're doing.  I asked where she wanted to play last year, and she said forward, and that's where we put her.  Since then, her shot got better, and her dexterity got better, and she seemed more happy by the end of the season, finishing with 14 goals, the most on the team.

During the second half, she scored two more times!  The last shot was with a level of calm and poise that I've never seen in this age group.  She dribbled toward the right goalpost, drew the goalie out a little and did a push shot to the far goalpost that was controlled and had only enough force to speed by the goalie, the ball never left the ground.  Quite a change from being stuck on defense and being thought of only as "the big girl".

So our three forwards kept the pressure on, our defense formed an impregnable wall, and our goalies (we switched at half-time) stopped all comers after the first surprise play.  I couldn't have been happier with my girls, who all ran until they were red in the face, and when they needed to come out, were eager to get back into the game after a sip of water and a minute's rest.

What a treat, man.  My disorganized team, lacking discipline and deference to an authoritarian leader, lacking the team cheer, unafraid to speak their mind and tell me where they should play, my team who stumbled on the field at the last minute, they played with heart, and freedom, and they totally kicked ass.  Sometimes it just all comes together.

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