50 Years of Running: They called me Coach too

Following years of coaching my son’s youth soccer teams, I started coaching the girl’s teams with my daughter Emily. She liked the concept of playing soccer, but not so much the running and such. So it was a constant issue to get her to play the open field even though she tended to be among the fastest girls on the pitch.

In fact, my favorite memory of her during soccer is a reel that plays in my mind to this day. During her last year of soccer at the age of twelve, she was signed up for a team that I did not coach. But the guys leading the team made a smart decision to bring a trainer in to get the girls in shape. He had them doing all sorts of strength-based workouts, and the girls were rather surprised how it made them feel. They’d also gather on the outskirts of practice to compare ab muscles. Even Emily kind of enjoyed the sensation of strength and speed.

During that season she played defender quite a bit. At this, she excelled. But one time as our team’s defenders were all pushed up to the half-line, an opponent launched a kick that sent one of their faster forwards chasing after it. Emily turned and sprinted after her, closing down the distance with long strides. It struck me that at full speed she ran with the same form as her father. I was looking at a female version of myself. She crossed the path of the forward while stealing the ball, gave it a touch to clear it sideways, and delivered a pass to her teammate. If nothing else ever happened in her soccer days, that was enough to demonstrate her athleticism.

Rec league rhythms

We spent many days on the pitch when I did coach her. That all began when she was about eight years old. Before that, I was still coaching my son and she played for rec teams. We attended all her games, and all of that was classic soccer stuff. Warm fall days fell into cold, wet mornings on the giant sets of fields at various park districts. We went through shirts of many colors, all of which served as a backdrop for her bright blonde hair. Like most soccer players, she shed cleats each season as her feet grew, but in her case, it was her feet that would cause some challenges.

She was born with a slightly curved foot structure on both sides. That meant wearing orthopedic shoes that straightened the bones but left her with really low arches. Not the ideal situation for running or sports. But even world-class athletes like Sebastian Coe have flat feet. So we did our best to find supportive shoes as she grew into the sport.

Coaching a daughter

A photo by photographer Karen Woodburn of Emily at age three. We snuck out to take photos and I made her promise not to tell her mother. But when Linda walked in the door, Emily’s first words were, “We got our pictures taken!” She later went on to become a fine photographer herself, as you’ll see. This photo captures Emily’s always impish nature.

Once I began coaching her girls’ teams, we engaged in fairly constant dialogue about the ups and downs and the social aspects of each group. I’d done that with my son, but those conversations were more about the capabilities of the respective players, and how to engage them strategically.

With Emily, the conservations were more about the personalities of the girls and how to work with them. Emily had little tolerance for the sometimes calculating ways of her peers or the cliques that formed within teams. I respected her ability to see how other girls interacted. Together we figured out how to help the girls all work as a unit.

But it was hard at times. During her fifth-grade season, one of the girls was actively provocative in her discussion with other girls. She was always sharing sexual tidbits about what she’d learned from somewhere. At one point I felt it best to let her father know what was going on.

I’d seen that kind of behavior before when I taught grade school phys-ed as a summer job during college. One of the girls in the fifth or sixth-grade class was ahead of her time in terms of interest in boys. She was just starting to develop physically and even snuck one of them off behind a hedge one morning to see what she could make happen. I turned that issue over to the supervisors right on the spot.

During high school, one of my best friends volunteered us to coach a girl’s basketball team. He later went on to manage a YMCA as a career. Even as a high school senior he understood and shared a great approach to coaching that was equitable for all. I never forgot that example and always tried to substitute players in the fairest fashion possible.

So I did my best to manage all that and help the girls have fun. We’d typically have one or two girls that were far superior in athletic talent each year, and in youth soccer, that means they’d do all the scoring. I remember a girl named Casey whose competitive spirit was quiet but fierce. She was never demonstrative in her play or actions, but she never messed around. Her focus was admirable. She’d come off the field with a sheen of sweat on her forehead, take a few sips from a water bottle, and stand ready to go back in whenever she was called.

Emily liked and admired that kind of player. Not all talented players were so egalitarian. One of our forwards was extremely fast, but she was also fond of the adoration she got from other girls on the team. It got to a point of exclusion within the ranks if someone didn’t cow to her demands. I pulled her aside to have a Ted Lasso talk, but I’m not sure it ever really helped. For some athletes, it takes years to learn how they fit into a leadership role, especially when their talent races ahead of their maturity.

Moments of joy and laughter

There were many moments of joy in coaching girls because their personalities at a young age are often irrepressible. One of the players on Emily’s U-9 team was a redhead named Garney. Walking off the field on a hot May morning, her face dripped with sweat at the temples and she flung a pile of thick red hair over her shoulder and stood resolute on the sidelines. “How you doing, Garney?” I asked.

She thrust one little hip to the side, turned to me with a flushed face, and said, “Fine. I just wish it wasn’t so frickin’ hot.” I laughed hard at that one. I knew her dad, a down-to-earth guy that probably used phrases like that quite often. Moments like that were what made coaching special to me. Unadorned reality.

There were some weirdly fantastical moments too. We joined her coach and his daughter to attend a USWNT game in Chicago. The event was sponsored in part by the American Girl company, and there was a doll giveaway at halftime. I was working at the Daily Herald at the time, and perhaps I had a promotional conversation with that group, I don’t remember. But out of 20,000+ mostly girl fans at the game, Emily won the doll, a Black soccer girl. Was it chance, or did the sponsors make an inside decision? We’ll never know.

We had fun, and plenty of laughs along the way. While driving Emily and some friends around one day, I had a new Modest Mouse CD playing on the deck. I’d heard their music in a record store and bought the album on the spot. As we drove around with the music playing one of Emily’s friends leaned forward and said, “Mr. Cudworth. Did you know there’s swears on this record?”

Emily burst out laughing. “That’s why he likes it!”

During her teenage years, I drove her to rock concerts all over the Chicago area. She’d become an excellent rock photographer and followed bands that used her photos on their album covers and merchandise. But when one of those rockers tried to lure her into their bus like a groupie, she told him to get lost. “That’s not what I’m here for.”

Her credibility grew and she was selected to be one of two rock photographers at a Maroon 5 show at a giant concert venue near Chicago. Her friends were a bit jealous about her close proximity to the lead singer Adam Levine. But she always focused on the work, not the FanGirl aspects.

I didn’t “coach” her at these endeavors so much as I tried to provide support when there were late nights and somewhat sketchy venue locations involved. One of the interesting payoffs from her work during those years was a deal she worked out with a top-ranked group called Goldhouse. She’d done their album cover work but wasn’t paid for the images. So she pushed them to perform at her high school graduation party. The group was a headliner for Warped Tour, a national concert series, and when they started to play in our 40-foot basement that June afternoon, people were blown away.

To this day, she’s a talented woman that approaches life on her own terms. And like her father, she’s faced her share of idiocracy in the workplace and beyond. The fact that we lost her mother to cancer ten years ago in March 2013 has not made life easier for her in many ways. Even a father can’t be a substitute for some things in life. I haven’t been perfect in that regard, for sure.

But I think back to the day when we traveled together to meet up with a falconry group so that she could do a college term paper using her photography. That day, she wore a black jacket with a fur collar on it, and the falconers told her, “Oh no, that won’t do.” Instead, they outfitted her head to toe in Carhartt clothing, including a jacket too large for her 5’6 frame and a set of canvas chaps so that she would wade through the undergrowth as we followed the falconers carrying a red-tailed hawk and a European goshawk.

It was a chilly winter day, but sunny. Her hair was dyed red during her college years, and it shone in the low January sun. One after the other, the hawks dispatched rabbits. Some let loose death squeals, and a falconer turned to her and said, “Does that bother you?”

She replied. “They gotta eat.” And we traveled on.

During the morning the goshawk got a bit fussy and nipped the owner with its sharp bill when he tried to substitute a chunk of meat for the rabbit. We stood there looking at the blood pouring from his bare hand, and knew that he’d need to wash it quickly. The rabbits all had some sort of parasite in them, and letting their blood mix with his might be bad news.

At the day’s end, we stood around talking when the goshawk owner came over to Emily and said, “Here, you can hold it.”

She blanched as the glove went on her hand and the hawk leapt onto her arm. “Oh my god,” she blurted.

The hawk sat there as she held it at arm’s length and a famous wildlife photographer stood back to take an image of her. I think that image (above) symbolizes her nature. I could not be more proud of my daughter in every way.


About Christopher Cudworth

Christopher Cudworth is a content producer, writer and blogger with more than 25 years’ experience in B2B and B2C marketing, journalism, public relations and social media. Connect with Christopher on Twitter: @genesisfix07 and blogs at werunandride.com, therightkindofpride.com and genesisfix.wordpress.com Online portfolio: http://www.behance.net/christophercudworth
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