As a young kid, I was obsessed with everything about sports. My brothers and I played every sport imaginable, all the time. Our side yard in Lancaster, Pennsylvania was the site of pickup football, soccer and baseball games of many kinds. I lived to impress others through sports.
While I excelled at an early age and even helped win a city baseball championship by pitching our team to a win in the second game of the Lancaster New Era baseball tournament, and was a starting guard in basketball all the way through my sophomore year in high school, by the time was a Junior Year it was time to specialize. My father had guided me into running that first year at little Kaneland High School, and I was the top runner before transferring to St. Charles where I also led the team. So it finally made sense to concentrate solely on running.
I didn’t necessarily want my choices to define those of my children. My son was born in 1986 and by the age of six or seven, he was signed up for soccer which proved to be a fun, healthy activity for him. Had our family not moved to Illinois when I was twelve years old, I’d have likely played soccer in high school, not become a runner. So I coached his teams with varied “success” because at those early ages, there is no predicting who you’ll get on a team and frankly, it doesn’t really matter. In fact, I coached one team that was 0-9. We almost had a chance to tie a game on a cold November day with rain pouring down on the field. The kids were soaked, and the parents were miserably huddled under umbrellas in the raw wind, yet we held out hope to have a shred of success with just one tie in the last contest. Then the ball squirted free at midfield and some kid dribbled toward our goalie and kicked it right at him. The shot hit his hands, went between his legs and dribbled into the goal.
A parent chuckled darkly under their umbrella and said, “Well, that’s our season in a nutshell.”
The Travel Team
By the time my son was nine years old a different type of fortune fell into a place and I unwittingly inherited a pile of talent on a single team that won the rec league. Traveling soccer was just being formed in the Tri-Cities league so I asked the parents if they’d like to carry the rec league success over to a traveling team. “We’ll keep it affordable,” I promised. Top-tier local teams were charging $1000 and more for kids to join. “Just $250 per season and we’ll play two tournaments and ten games.”
The parents loved that idea. So we formed the Tri-City Sky, a name I willfully chose because the typical names like Raptors and Killers and Eviscerators (I made that up) all sounded stupidly aggressive to me.
That team was built over time to include other players as a few kids came and went. The soccer hierarchy was Platinum, Gold, Silver, Blue, etc. We typically played in the Blue or Silver categories. My son Evan was a solid player among a group of athletic kids. We subbed as equitably as possible so that all kids got to play. Most years we had winning seasons, which was gratifying.
But one year we showed up for the annual seeding tournament that determines where you wind up in the league. As happens often with preteens, a couple kids were out with the flu. During the first game, two more players grew sick and dropped out of the tournament. We lost that game. When the next game began, two more kids were throwing up or looking peaked. We were down to ten players able to play and during that game, my son came over to me at halftime and said, “Dad, I don’t feel good. But I can still play.” He was always much tougher than me about things like that. I once watched him barf a cheeseburger into the garbage can during an indoor soccer game and go back out and play. “I guess I ate a little too close to the match,” he told me.
Even with that level of tough attitude from all of our players, we lost all three seeding tournaments games. The last one was by 6-0 or something on that order. That result dumped us all the way down to the Orange or Yellow or Green bracket, I can’t remember, for season play. I called the league to beg deference given our consistent winning record in Blue and Silver during previous seasons, but no go. We went 10-0 that year against weak teams and most of the scores were that high too. It was a tragic experience and the kids didn’t take that season all that seriously.
I was a loud and boisterous coach that didn’t always know what he was doing. I cared a bit too much about the outcomes. As in, winning. I admittedly yelled at referees, not always justifiably. At one game I grew so frustrated with our team’s efforts that I literally tore my hat in two. The kids roared at that one. No, I wasn’t always a good role model.
By contrast, my assistant coaches were a grace in many ways. A faithful guy named Mark helped coach the team for many seasons. His son Nick, while a bit overweight, was a great goalie in many respects. The other assistant for a season or two was a humorous guy named Todd, whose son Peter filled in at goal when Nick took a break to play hockey or some other sport. Peter was a tempestuous kid, prone to loud outbursts when frustrated. During our first practice together with him, he yelled “Fuck!” when a goal shot zipped past him. I had to pull him aside and explain that we can’t use that kid of language. Ever. It didn’t stop it completely, but it helped.
His father Todd was a great motivator to the kids, a sideline coach with a big voice who could get the kids’ attention when needed. During one fast-paced match, one of our midfielders took a point blank shot to the face and fell over. As he got back up, looking a bit wobbly and disoriented out, Coach Todd called out, “Joey, answer the phone!” We all laughed hard because Joey was one of those hard-nosed kids that ran through just about everything. I think he wound up playing football in high school.
We had a giant player named TJ Quinn whose sense of humor was a foundation of joy at every practice and game. He walked like Sasquatch and played with an assertive finesse that belied his height. During one massively losing effort in the championship match of a tournament where we were outclassed by a team from St. Louis, the score was 8-0 when TJ snatched the ball as a defender, did two dribble crossovers, and launched a giant kick placing the ball upfield for the first time in the second half. Even the other team found it a hilarious display of frustrated prowess. TJ just smiled. At first, I was going to yell at him for the antics, then realized his take on the game was spot on. From that point, the other team took it easier on us anyway.
We ultimately did win one tournament and posed for a photo in the fading sun of a June afternoon. The kids played well and it was almost a relief to win after seasons of coming so close. Thinking back, I now realize how little I actually understood about the game. It wasn’t until I played a few seasons of adult league soccer on my own that I began to think, “Oh yeah, I get it now.”
Memories, or not
Years later I told my son a story about the best memory I have from his Youth Soccer playing days. “Do you recall the time you took the ball down the sidelines and crossed it for Patrick with a perfect header?”
“Dad,” he replied. “I don’t remember any of the games. But I remember the practices, and we had fun.”
Thus in part, I did my job. Nine out of our sixteen players from the last season went on to play high school soccer. At times during those eight or nine spring and fall seasons, the Campton Soccer Club that took over the traveling program from Tri-Cities tried raiding our team for their Elite clubs. When they held tryouts I didn’t deny my kids a chance to test their skills. But when Campton chose the least talented player on our team, a kid that couldn’t even dribble the ball well, to join their club, my son told me, “Dad, this is bogus. Let’s just keep our team together.”
So we did. All but one player stuck with us because we still charged just $250 for a season. Late in the last spring with the club, when the kids were twelve or thirteen years old, we gathered for a practice and the Girl’s U-12 team challenged us to a game. We’d played them on and off for several seasons, but now our boys were getting big and fast. I could certainly no longer outrace my players in a sprint even though I could still run a 5:00 mile when fit. I’d forgotten how fast kids can be.
We lined up and I agreed to ref the game while the girls’ coach had to leave for some appointment. He assistant stayed behind. The game quickly devolved into the boys dominating the field. AT that point, the girls convened after one of several goals scored against them and began rolling up their shorts and uniform tops to show off their thighs and bellies. One of them yelled, “Felipe, Beckie loves you!!!” And my boys began ribbing him badly.
The boys were wrecked from that moment forward. The girls club quickly scored a goal and one of their players walked past me and said, “Coach, your boys are so easy…”
That’s when I blew the whistle, called the game a tie, and sent the girls off with their assistant coach. My boys were mad. “Coach, we were beating them!” one of them told me.
“Well, you lost in the game that counts,” I laughed.
We did have a ton of laughs over time. During one drill with the Campton coach that was assigned to help the kids with skill drills, he had them doing some sort of crouched walking exercise that looked so ridiculous when Nick and TJ started to trundle along the entire club fell down laughing. I couldn’t blame them. They looked like something from the Addam’s Family.
We had another trainer that hailed from Morocco. He was used to coaching super serious players back in his country and could not understand the jovial nature of our group of soccer misfits, many of whom played different sports ranging from basketball to football to baseball during our regular season. They’d show up half-tired some nights, so I often built practices around what we could get from the kids given their respective energy levels. Sometimes that was frustrating to our trainer, but after that Addam’s Family scene he kind of understood that we’d learn what we could. The other detraction was that players sometimes bailed on the team for an important game in some sport. But flexibility was part of the program, so we did our best.
A few of our players came to us from interesting circumstances. One Latino player was my son’s friend, but his mother was suspicious of club soccer and didn’t want her son placed in situations where he was not respected or treated well. Eventually, he joined the team and largely thrived, becoming one of our most dynamic players. On some weekends, he’d play with his father’s team instead. That was part of the deal. Twenty years later, I sometimes see his mother around town. She still calls me Coach.
Not so positive
Not every experience coaching youth soccer was positive. We competed in a league across the Chicago area and some clubs had a culture about them that was aggressive, if not downright dangerous. One suburban team had six coaches along the sideline, which is against the rules. All of them were stalking up and down and yelling, even crossing onto our side of the field, another infringement. The referee said nothing. Toward the end of the half, one of our players broke free with the ball just outside the box. As he made his way toward goal, the team’s goalie grabbed him by the shirt and dragged him to the ground. No call. Later we learned that the referee was the goalie’s older brother.
Their best player was exceptional, that is for sure. We had to put one of our players on him one-on-one in the second half to keep him from scoring all the time. That drove the opposing crowd nuts. They started shouting obscenities. Then the opposing coach confronted me at midfield, muttering invectives and threats. It got uglier as the game got out of control. Sensing that my parents were looking to me for guidance in the situation, I kept my temper and myself under control. The game ended with a loss for us, but I was glad it was over.
Walking to our car with my wife, daughter, and son, I sensed that someone was following us. Ushering my family into our car, I turned around to find one of their assistant coaches pushing a finger in my face while lecturing me about the game. I stood still, staring straight into his eyes, making no aggressive moves. Then I calmly stated: “You do know how wrong your behavior is right now, don’t you?”
At that moment, something within him seemed to collapse. He stepped back, dropped his shoulders, and said, “I’m sorry. You’re right. I got carried away.”
“All good,” I told him. “But I am calling the league about your team and your coach. This entire thing was inexcusable.” Good to my word, I called the league, who called the coach, who later called me complaining that I’d told on him. I didn’t care. The crew of fans and players and coaches on their side was out of control. It was like being caught up in an insurrection of sorts. People going out of their minds and dishonestly obsessed with an outcome they didn’t like.
High school soccer
When my son went on to play in high school he earned his way into the starting lineup. I was happy for him, and the coach of the team rightly didn’t invite parent input on any team matters. But one week I showed up to find my son sitting on the bench at the start of the game. I was fuming, wondering what decision drove that situation. After the half, he got into the game and scored the team’s only goal to win. Back at the car, I sat down expecting to grill him about why he didn’t play in the first half and he plopped down in the passenger seat and said, “Dad, I didn’t feel good when we got to the game today. I told coach to keep me out. But I felt better by the half, so he put me in. And hey, I got a goal!”
Lessons like that are important for parents to learn. Things are not always what they seem.
My son gave up soccer after his sophomore year because the varsity coach never talked to him or invited him to try out the next year. Some of his soph teammates got called up and Evan never did. I think he saw that the makeup of the team and the guys playing weren’t people he liked that much anyway.
He also ran track and by his sophomore year had run a sub-2:00 half-mile, faster than I ever did in high school. But he came home from a meet one day and said “Dad, when I’m doing track I’m like 25% happy. But when I’m doing Drama I’m 100% happy.”
“Well then,” replied. “That’s an easy decision to make then.” He went on to act and direct in many plays through high school and college.
I never wanted him to feel like he had to become a Mini-Me. Yet these days we’re finding that we’re alike in many more ways than we ever thought. In my next column, I’ll share what it was like to become a coach on my daughter’s side as well. Coaching girl’s teams was an entirely different experience.