Soccer Lessons

I have had a great privilege coaching for 4 years in soccer. I started out as an assistant and then for 2 years took on head coach. I am one of the few women that coach in the higher age groups. It is challenging to work with 13 and 14 year olds. Most days I’m muttering under my breath about puberty and hormones and one day they’ll be normal. I took on the volunteer roles in order for my own daughters to play the sport they love. The first year coaching was with my oldest and then the last 3 years with my middle daughter.
We have a very small community in which to gather a team and have enough numbers. This past year was the biggest struggle and we played short. Most games we could get other teams to match us in numbers, but there were times coaches would take advantage of our disadvantage and play a full team and we couldn’t match them. Being a woman seems to make male coaches think they can talk down to me and they honestly believe I am weak. I’ve been called names like bitch and slut. I’ve had them argue rules. I’ve asked them to stop yelling at the ref to be yelled at and told to go back to my bench. I have defended our refs and my players to watch adults act so incredibly stupid in front of both teams. I’ve asked them in those moments, “What are you teaching your kids?” It seems incredible most of the time in a community level league to have people totally lose their cool. No wonder they have to ask parents, coaches and players to sign a code of conduct to remind them to use common sense and it is just a game and not life and death.
But, with all the challenges I’ve also had some of the most amazing experiences with the players. I am pretty calm. I focus on positive words and actions. I joke. But, I ask for respect and for the most part I have always received it. I had a child on the team this year that had some mental challenges. He’s had a difficult couple years and was not dealing well in social environments. The first practice I was warned and it went well. By the second practice I asked him to do something in his defense position and he turned to me and yelled that he didn’t have to be told and he had played this positon before. I sighed and left it. The first game he walked away from the game and told his mom he was going home. By the second game he told me that he was forced to come and didn’t want to play. One of his issues was that a player couldn’t tell him what to do. He felt like it was a personal attack if they told him to move up and get the ball. It was just game play talk and he was getting angry and balling up his fists. I can say that I felt overwhelmed by all his stuff that was coming at me. But, in his rants he would throw out these small cries, “I play soccer because my dad loved it so much. I joined the team to make friends.” In the end, what worked for me is finding his kryptonite….his mother. If he started talking rude or refused to play I would grab my phone and say I will message your mother. During one game I told him that I was going to let his mom know about all the rude comments and behavior. He quit talking. He went out and played with no issues. After the game he asked me are you still going to tell my mom. I said no and that I was super proud of his great ball handling skills. He grinned and left the field.
He struggled through the season. He would walk off during games. He had issues with a player on a neighboring town’s team. He refused to shake hands at the end. He would refuse to sub on. I didn’t have time to fix it for him. I kept asking the team to just allow him to be. I said he just needs to process his own way. But, as time went on and he was getting help outside of soccer he was finally warming up. By the last two games he was playing forward positon, high fives with his teammates, laughter and shaking hands at the end of games. We lost some and won some games. But, it was moments like this that truly made the season.
I have seen many kids in my four years and it seems that it has always included a child that just wants to be seen. My first year was like that as well. I had this player that really was a good player. He was strong and brave. He could play any positon even goalie and he could play it well. But, his behavior at times was sometimes less then positive, but I saw the spark in him. Finally, he realized I saw his spark and we talked. Our relationship has always continued and once in a while I remind him that I know how great he truly is even if he doesn’t see it. He had an amazing season that year in soccer. But, I can tell you that others don’t feel much hope from him and he struggles that the life he has is as good as it is going to get. It makes me sad, but I feel like if I keep saying it that maybe it will become part of his thoughts as well.
In the end, coaching soccer was never about soccer. It was connection with these young souls. It was the connection to my own children. They saw the good, bad and ugly of volunteering and how to hold your head high and not every stupid sentence spoken from a coach or parent is about you at all. But, it was great to have my last game as a coach have an opportunity to call someone out on their lack of gender equality. During the game the opposition coach would yell at his male player if a female player from my team took the ball away that she was “just a girl”. A couple of my male players came to me to say that he was saying this and they didn’t like it. Then the linesman said to me that he was making those remarks. At the end of the game I approached both male coaches and the one that didn’t say it got defensive thinking I was starting something. The coach who did say it admitted he had said it. He said he would go and apologize. He told my player that she was better than half of his team and that he was trying to motivate his player. I said, “You motivated your player by putting her down. You are saying that as a girl she is weak and your boy should be stronger than her. It isn’t ok. She is a good player and that is why he lost the ball and not because she’s a girl and that he is weak, but that her skills were better.” He agreed and said sorry. Turns out the girl he apologized to was my daughter.
I hope that with all the players that I had contact with through the years did respect that as a woman I had an element to add to their game and lives. I hope that my daughter and the other females on the team know that they can step up and take these positions and handle them with poise and dignity. I also hope that my focus on “Play the ball and not the man” will be their future mantra. I was glad that I stepped up and was able to handle the position. It made me stronger and grow as a person, but I am ready to stop taking on these roles that no longer serve me. I am glad what I have learned, but my life is not meant to coach soccer anymore. I am ready to take things off my plate to focus more on what I truly love. I have great skills that coaching brought out, but those skills are meant for other things. Best of luck to all the players may they all be blessed in their future endeavors.

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