I had always assumed I’d be a rotten coach (along with a rotten teacher) because I can’t abide small talk or chit-chat, and as a tutor, mentor, or role model, I can be impatient and distant. But something about coaching just works for me. After I wrote this, and got pretty good response, Natalie’s winter league needed a coach and I volunteered, and the girls and I had a great time. And somewhere in there, in the little pre-game and post-game talks and in the individual instruction as they came off the field for a sub, I tried to give them a few things they might hang onto, might use in their lives even if much later. Who knows. One of the girls asked if I coached outside, and I said not anymore, and she said, “You should.” That was all the thanks I could ever ask for.
Awhile back, I gave up about three years of long weekend rides and Thursday Night Crits to help coach my daughter’s soccer team, and these days if someone happens to ask about that time I say I don’t regret it, that it was worth it, that in the same situation I’d do it again but I sure am glad to be riding now.
I don’t try to explain what it all meant to me, those years, how often I think about them, how much I learned.
I never knew much about soccer—I’d never played—but I could always get to practice on time to run warmups, and I was fit and could sprint down the field when a drill was short a player, so I ended up as the assistant coach. I also, from cycling, still was in touch with things I think a lot of parents perhaps once knew but mostly become distanced from when they leave sports behind—how it really feels to try, to win, to lose, to let teammates down, to reward them, to support them, to struggle, to persevere, to be really really really thirsty, to play sick, to enjoy a day so great you seem to be goofing around, to want to quit, to get hurt, to be matched against a better athlete, to be cheated by a lousy call, to forget your shoes. In other words, I spent a lot of time feeding balls for drills and telling the girls they should pack their gear bags the night before the game.
They were at the age when they could all still someday be the greatest soccer player the world had ever seen, but they were also at that age when picking the funniest animal noise to make when they scored during a session of World Cup mattered more than winning World Cup. They were at that age when you could literally watch them get better—in a matter of minutes one of them would absorb and implement a few sentences the head coach had said about shielding or settling to the outside or running through the ball instead of circling it. He taught them to pass to space, and they would go out and score more goals. Reesey or Brenna or someone would get subbed for and come to the bench breathing hard and I’d say, “Doesn’t it feel great to play so hard you feel awful,” and they would give me a look and sit and rest then go back out and maybe play a little harder or maybe not, I could never tell. Mostly, after a while, they all had their shoes, anyway.
Almost all the girls who were on that team and stuck with soccer made the notoriously tough cut for the local high school squad this year, mostly junior varsity but a couple of them made varsity as freshmen. I hadn’t really seen any of them since I stopped coaching, and the high school is just down the street and I kept thinking I should get there for a game. The other night, even though it was so cold and damp I didn’t want at all to sit around on a metal bleacher for a couple hours, I made it out to one of the last home games of the year.
There they were. I’d watched these girls, years ago, become athletes, been right there as they’d learned to embrace exhaustion and had found that strange joy of struggle, and I had seen in their faces and their hugs and leaps into each other’s arms after a championship game that they understood a victory was only the sweetest part of what was really worth savoring about all that had gotten them there. They’d reminded me how important these silly little games we play at really are—not at the professional level, but the personal level. I sat by myself at first, away from the parents, because I felt a little weird, was a little unsure any of them would remember me or thought that maybe if they did they’d wonder what the hell I was doing there. The old head coach was there in the stands, and out on the field the girls were doing all the stuff he’d taught them—the headers, and getting wide when they needed to, and the scissor stepovers—and they won 4-3 thanks in large part to all that stuff.
I was walking out to go back to my truck when I saw Leener’s—Colleen’s—mom. We said hi, and I said I’d been wanting to get out to a game, and that Leener had played great, and we talked about a few more things the way you do then Lynn said, “You know, we think about you on nights like this.”
“Yeah. You told Colleen she’s great in the cold, and when it’s raining or bad out, and she remembered that and we always mention it.”
I laughed, kind of. I shook my head a little. I looked down at the ground.
“Yeah,” said Lynn. “She says she loves to play when it’s horrible now.”
There had been a game once when it had been snowing, and as windy as a spring race in Belgium, and a lot of the girls were crying, and I had said to Leener, “Isn’t this great? You know how much the other team hates this? I love racing my bike when it’s horrible.”
I told Lynn thanks. I think I maybe said thanks a lot. It was about all I could get out. I walked to my truck real quick, then sat in it for awhile. The girls had all had two shoes, anyway.
Originally published in The Selection, October 11, 2013