“This season, all I care about are Goals and Wins!”
Those were the words that started off my first speech of the season. I’m a firm believer that when leading a team of 7th-grade girls it’s important to establish priorities immediately. This being my 3rd full season, the girls were aware their coach was a little off kilter and may take his role of “Coach Jack” just a bit too seriously. Even with their measured expectations I could tell this statement took them by surprise. I’m confident they felt duped and were wondering what happened to the guy who used to promise fun and just wanted them to try hard?
I became “Coach Jack” in my early twenties when my nephew Danny’s, team needed a coach. I had nothing better to do so I coerced my buddy Doug into joining me for an adventure that would surely impress the ladies. Minutes into our first practice it was glaringly obvious to both of us that we had absolutely no idea how to communicate with wide-eyed, nervous 8-year-olds. There we were, standing in the middle of a huge field on a hot summer night. Fourteen pairs of brand spanking new soccer shoes and oversized shin guards waiting to be scuffed. We looked at them,… they looked at us… and we looked at each other. You know that awkward moment when you run into an old friend and have absolutely nothing to talk about despite having something big in common? Yeah, that’s what it felt like. I was scrambling words to wind up our first pep talk when I backed Doug and me into a corner by concluding with an overly enthusiastic….. “you are going to have a GREAT time and we PROMISE you are going to have fun!!!” or something along those lines. I could see the veil of polite confusion lift. Their faces were lit up and all eyes were focused on the guy who promised FUN. It was easy to see I struck a nerve and was now speaking their language. And just like that, “Coach Jack” was conceived.
It didn’t take long to see they were buying what we were selling. We worked hard to make sure the kids had Fun. Our not so secret ulterior motive was to turn these kids into Spartan-like athletes that would drop their surname to become one of the greats like, Pele, Maradona, and Doug. I think we only lost two or three games those first couple of seasons (but who was counting besides me). That season turned into another and eventually into several years of rec teams, travel teams and indoor soccer. Eventually when my nephew Danny grew older, I hung up my whistle.
When my daughter, Julia, began playing soccer six years ago, I was more than willing to once again break out the whistle and “Coach Jack” was back again. Thankfully Julia tolerates her Dad’s antics. We’ve had our successes along the way that seem to validate my methods. Like any daughter, she lets me know when I go over the top, but I catch her laughing so I consider it a wash.
I currently coach the Immaculate Conception 7th grade girls. It’s a school team made up almost entirely of classmates. There are no tryouts and the team is the team. You take the players you get. Julia began playing for this team in the middle of her 4th-grade year. I became the head coach the following fall. Before my first full season with “my girls”, one of the parents of a long time player said, “good luck getting these girls moving. There is no chance of getting them to play aggressively.” I know a challenge when I hear it. This guy had history on his side. “those girls” hadn’t won a game in three years and scored only 3 goals in the past two seasons. My first season didn’t fair much better. We scored three goals en route to another 0-10 season.
Interspersed in the fun, I preach soccer philosophy over and over until the girls are sick of hearing the self-proclaimed “Coach Jackisms”. It’s known by all of them, that I’d rather have smart players than good players. Smart players can become good, good players don’t always become smart. Like most coaches, there are a few phrases that I probably repeat hundreds of times throughout the season. I continually tell them that my goal is for them to “understand the game”, “make good decisions” and the one that is emphasized loudly at least once a practice…. “We play smart soccer!”
Somewhere along the line something clicked. We went from 0-10 the first year to 10-0 the second year. At the end of the season, we entered a tournament and did not know what to expect. We ended up winning the U-12 division to cap off an amazing season.
So this year’s coaching mantra was “Goals” and “Wins”. When explained further, after the shock value of my opening statement wore off, “Goals” are what the girls would set for themselves and “Wins” happened whenever someone achieved their goal. When wins started to accumulate, our wins as a team were sure to follow. Before practice, I called on each girl and asked them to proclaim their goal for that practice. After practice, I asked, “who had a win?” Sometimes a girl would raise her hand and others a teammate
would point out, “Cindy played aggressive” or something to that effect. We would all give the soccer clap of respect to a player who achieved their goal and that’s how we ended the practice.
The timeliness of this post is a result of one of those moments of clarity that stops you in your tracks. It occurred during the game I coached on Sunday. This year we entered the same end of year tournament in a higher U-15 division to play against a mixture of 7th, 8th, and 9th-grade girls. Hopes were not that high since as 7th graders we were younger and smaller than the other teams. Surprisingly we were one of two teams that made it out of the first day undefeated.
In the semi-finals, we were playing a very tough team from Columbia MD. It was half-time and we were winning 1-0. All of the things we had been practicing were coming together. It was truly fun to watch. I called the girls together for my halftime review and started with the question; “are you having fun?” Almost in unison I heard and enthusiastic, “YES!” One player raised her hand. Before I said a word, she described a scenario on the field and how we could capitalize. Immediately another player chimed in with something they had noticed and how a teammate can benefit. Then another player spoke up, and another. All the comments were accurate. I didn’t have to say a word. All of a sudden I saw it in front of me….. “my girls” were indeed smart soccer players. They knew the game. They were playing for each other. They wanted to win and despite being probably the youngest team in the division, they believed they could. I barely said a word during the rest of halftime.
Then, as if it was something from the movie “Hoosiers” – I started the hand pile for our customary “Can’t Stop…. Won’t Stop” battle cry as per our custom before games and at the end of halftime. Still feeling the emotion from what I just witnessed, I said a the tone of pure pride; “listen to your teammates; trust your teammates; trust yourselves. You know what to do; I’m proud of you all and I love you guys.” This was a bit awkward for me, as I’ve never gone THAT deep as to tell a team I love them. Any perceived awkward moment was erased when voices responded immediately and almost in unison “we love you too coach”.
We didn’t win that game. We lost 2-1. The girls were upset with the loss of a contest that could have gone either way. That’s completely understandable and I would have liked to have advance to the finals as well. For the rest of that day (we had one more game against a team of 8th-grade girls and won 6-1 in case you were wondering) I watched them differently. These were girls who loved to compete and loved to play. They knew the game and were having fun. All I wanted to accomplish when I set my personal “Goal” during that very first practice a long long time ago was playing out in front of me. Regardless of the score, I felt like a winning Coach. I know I will consider that game one of the biggest “Wins” of my career.
Somewhere along the way, in the midst of all this fun, the lessons, the yelling, the sweat, the bumps the bruises, the measurement of being a successful coach went beyond win / loss records or championships.
Thank you, ladies, for continuing to teach me something new and being the reason I achieved my goal. To answer my own question; “are you having fun?” My response is; “more than ever.”