Monday, October 8, 2012

Lessons From the Little Field

I got into youth soccer coaching accidentally. One moment I was responding to an email asking for volunteers with my own questions about the details of coaching so that I might better consider coaching from an informed standpoint- after all, I didn't want my kid to be wait-listed for lack of volunteers but I was growing in this whole ability to not always say "yes" to every opportunity that came my way. The next moment I was receiving an email back with a roster of sweet three and four-year-olds. So much for my cautious response.

I remember well my very first practice. It inspired its very own blogpost, Herding Cats, that I ocassionally go back and read to remember how far we have come. The Mighty Tigers, that first season, felt chaotic, fun and frustrating all at the same time.  In the seasons since then, as I have watched these kids grow up and seen some come and go, I've learned a lot.

Here are eleven lessons from the little field:

(1) Never Show Your Weakness. The practices that I have shown up for exhausted have been the ones most likely to dissolve into chaos. It's as if these little people can tell you are on the edge and they manage to suck out every last vestige of patience, control and vitality from your very soul and take it as their own. The more energy you can infuse into your being before you show up, the better things will go.

(2) Never, Ever Turn Your Back. I learned this one the hard way. The second you turn away from a team of little kids, all hell breaks loose. Balls flying through the air at people's heads(including the coach) Kids lying scattered on the ground like a bunch of bowling pins. And noise. Noise everywhere. Noise that will make your head explode. 

(3) You Gotta Have a Trick Up Your Sleeve. There is no reasonable and straightforward communication involved in a kids soccer practice. Everything has to have a spin. If you want the kids to take a water break and actually return to the field, you have to make it a race. If you want the kids to listen to something you want to say, you need some kind of gadget to keep them quiet. (If you hear my voice, clap once..if you hear my voice, clap twice...etc.) If you want the kids to go get their balls and bring them back to where you are, count backwards from 10. Otherwise they will take roughly 2 hours to go get them and likely end up on another field altogether throwing balls at innocent bystanders. True story.

(4) There IS Crying in Soccer. My first season, with kids who were barely larger than their soccer balls, I would consider it a successful game if there were any kids left on the field by the final whistle. Sometimes it looked like a war zone- kids laying on the field picking flowers, one kid sitting squarely in the middle of the goal just waiting to get walloped, multiple children sobbing in parents' arms for varied legitimate and, in my opinion, illegitimate reasons. But then I've never been high on compassion. We've made it through two games now with no tears and I feel like we're on our way to the Olympics. It's that miraculous.

(5) When in Doubt, Abandon Ship! It wasn't until this current season that I could really try to run a drill and have kids actually participate. Up until now, it has been games, games and more games. All, of course, purposed to increase skills in dribbling and kicking, but games nonetheless. Occasionally, though, even games fail. Kids are freaking out, balls are not even on the right field anymore. If that happens, abandon ship. Give it up. Always have a new game ready to replace a failure. You just never know what's going to be a hit and what is going to usher in armageddon.

(6) Cheer like it's your job! We've made it a priority to have a fun cheer every season. Because no matter what, whether a kid has sat out an entire game sobbing or scored 20 goals (yes, we do have a few of those kinds of kids, too) they all want to celebrate at the end. And they will fight to the kid to have their hand be the one on top in the middle of the huddle and use their "outside voices" like they've been given the best gift in the world. Pick a name, create a cheer, teach it and do it often. The kids will leave the field smiling even if they lose 100-1 or have had the worst practice in the world. And after all, if the kids aren't smiling, what's the point?

(7) Keep Things Moving. You've got to have a plan. And it's got to be a plan with very little down time. The second the kids are standing around wondering what's next is the same moment you lose control. From warm-ups to cool-down, the kids should know every minute what they are supposed to be doing. If not, they may initiate a very cute, but hostile, takeover.

(8) Smile and Nod. Kids will want to share totally irrelevant details of their lives in the middle of your most inspired coaching moments. They will want to show you their pretty pink purse or stick-on Spiderman tattoo or tell you about the birthday party they are attending next month. This is important to them. If you shoot them down, you might send them into a downward spiral from which they cannot emerge. Love on their info, smile and nod and tell them you are excited to hear more after practice and them make it a point to actually follow up. They'll love you for it.

(9) The Name Thing. Everyone's had that moment when someone in authority could not remember their name. It's no fun when you're 30 and it's no fun when you're 5. I make it a point when I first meet my kids to say their name constantly that first practice. By the end of that first hour of knowing them they should be fully confident their coach knows who they are and cares about them and will notice if they aren't there. If you're bad with names, bring a camera and take pics that first day then make it a point to memorize those sweet little faces. Believe me, their parents will rest easier on the sidelines if they know you actually care enough to know who are their kids.

(10) Go Team! Kids sports can be a world in which parents live vicariously through their children.It can be highly competitive on the sidelines even if the kids on the field aren't even sure which direction to run. Encourage your parents from the get-go that this is about the kids having fun, playing hard and learning good teamwork. Help them learn the kids names. Ask them to cheer for all the kids, not only their child and team but also the little ones working hard on the other side of the field. There will be plenty of time in the future to get competitive- maybe if we infuse our kids with a healthy view of sports, teamwork and the opposing team, their trash talk won't be quite so mean in those later years.

(11) Never Go It Alone. I won't say it's impossible to coach kids by yourself, but it's pretty darn hard. Get the parents involved. Beg, borrow and steal to get a friend to be your co-coach. I finally have one this season and I cannot begin to explain what a difference it has made. Whatever you do, have an ally. Two is exponentially better than one. Especially if your assistant coach is a bald guy who can scare the heck out of unruly participants.

To those friends of mine who are considering coaching your kid, go for it. I have faced some of the most frustrating moments of my life with these teams but there is no question that I have experienced some of the best moments of my life as well. Watching my kids go from chaotic and weepy Mighty Tigers to this current season of the Fireballs where they are communicating and passing and laughing and staying on the field the whole time is just incredible. And seeing your own kid excited to tackle practices and games and so proud and excited that you are his coach- well, that's a pretty awesome bonus!






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