The Rookie Soccer Coach
February 29, 2012
I stood on a barren field and gathered my men around me for the first time, searching for that cold, hard, competitive glint in the eyes of a team that would die before it retreated, that would attack the rusty teeth of a second-hand chainsaw if it meant the difference between victory and defeat. I saw freckles instead. And bubblegum that had to be peeled off the freckles. And my bubble burst.
My men were mostly six years old, and I fully expected them to drive the soccer ball downfield with the precision of a fine-tuned, well-oiled machine hitting on all eight cylinders.
Perhaps they could have.
But my goalie was down under the bridge fishing for crawdads. My left fullback was out picking purple wildflowers for his mother. My center forward was late from her ballet practice. And my five-year-old sweeper couldn’t remember what position he was supposed to play, which was tragic and disappointing and froth with frustration. My sweeper was my son.
Personally, I thought it was quite a clever name. I asked, “Do any of you know what haze is?”
“Sure,” snapped the cotton-headed kid with the scab on his nose, “It’s what cows eat.”
I closed my eyes and lowered my head. I wasn’t praying, but I should have been asking for deliverance. There was none. Mine would be the longest season of all.
The goalie always caught more crawdads than balls that were smashed his way. The left fullback’s mother had to buy three new vases to hold all of the wildflowers. The center forward could stand on her toes, but she couldn’t kick with any of them. And my sweeper couldn’t figure out exactly what a sweeper was supposed to do.
“You play behind the forwards,” I patiently explained.
The sweeper nodded, squared his five-year-old shoulders, trotted out into the barren field, then suddenly turned and yelled, “Dad.”
“It’s coach,” I said.
“Dad,” he said.
“What’s a forward?”
I never expected to be a soccer coach. I didn’t even know all the rules and would be fielding a team in the first soccer match I ever saw. I knew I couldn’t teach from experience, so I asked the YMCA director, “Waldo, what’s the most important thing I need to know about being a good soccer coach?”
“How to tie shoelaces,” he said.
That would be the least of my worries. By the first game, I was a nervous wreck. I gathered my team around me and began the most inspirational speech I could muster. “Men,” I said, as the center forward pulled on her pink socks and giggled, “it doesn’t matter whether we win or lose. All l want you to do is play the best you can.”
For dramatic effect, you know.
Then I asked smartly, “Any questions?”
The cotton-headed kid with the scab on his nose raised his hand. “Yeah, coach,” he said.
For dramatic effect, you know.
His pressed his face against the ground.
I knelt beside him and placed my arm around his narrow little shoulders. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Are those worms dead?” he asked.
I didn’t know. But they were now.
My men never had a chance. They lost four to nothing, and my heart ached for them. I felt the eyes of the fathers who criticized me for not yelling at the team enough and the eyes of the mothers who criticized me for yelling too much.
I was in pain.
I wondered why the kids were smiling.
I wanted to win.
All they wanted was a Coke.
I watched my sweeper prance off the barren field. All week I had told the five-year-old, “You’re a sweeper.”
The assistant coach kept reminding him, “You’re a sweeper.”
His mother kissed his cheek when she tucked him in every night and whispered, “You’re a sweeper.”
And now a lady was stopping the boy and asking him, “Great game, Josh. What position do you play?”
He stuck his chin out, squared his five-year-old shoulders like a well-oiled athlete, and answered proudly, “I’m the broom.”
I spent a lot of my time that season down under the bridge, jigging for crawdads and fretting over shoelaces that wouldn’t stay tied, picking up dead worms and watching the purple wildflowers that would be more important on some mother’s table than, God forbid, a championship trophy.
The day we lost, I cried.
Same thing happened the day we won.