The Reluctant Coach (#292)

I thought that signing up my kid for recreational soccer meant all I’d have to sign up for would be snacks.

That’s how they get you.

AYSO always needed volunteers. They threatened to dissolve multiple teams unless parents agreed to coach. They promised the parents plenty of free training.

I gave Andy a hopeful look.

My husband said, “Hell, no. You’re the one who wanted him to play soccer.”

I caved and agreed to coach Baby D’s U6 team.

All I knew about soccer was no one agrees about when a player is offsides. I wasn’t even sure what it meant to be offsides.

I went to every meeting and training session I could find. I learned the mechanics of passing (which boil down to “point with your non-kicking foot in the direction you want the ball to go!”) and a thousand games to play with soccer balls. I learned that there is no penalty for being offsides until U9. Whew.

I also learned that making sure the kids had fun was the most important part of coaching (at least according to AYSO). After that came sportsmanship. Actual soccer skills were maybe third–or possibly fourth, behind “have yummy snacks after every game.”

AYSO handed me a green coach jersey, a whistle, a bag of uniforms, and turned me loose.

I dug up a clipboard and created a lesson plan (i.e., a list of games to play). I dragged Baby D to the field early so I could set up cones for our first practice. I braced myself as 10 five-year-olds swarmed the field. In between various games of “kick the ball through the cones” and “try and hit the coach with your soccer ball,” the boys constantly kicked away their teammates’ soccer balls. Kicking away someone’s ball can be the five-year-old male equivalent of “hi,” or “let’s be friends.” Or it can mean “you’re a jerk,” and “I hate you.” Context is important.

Practice was a battle to keep their attention long enough to explain each new game. We spent an hour chasing balls and teetering on the edge of anarchy.

On the plus side, every kid was awful except for little Ohta, a graduate of the local Japanese-American soccer camps. Which meant that only Ohta knew for sure that I had no idea what I was doing.

Our first game went…poorly. The coaches are also the referees in U6 soccer. I assumed that a kick off was like an American football kick off and had Ohta send the ball way down the field (which he did without looking at me like I was an idiot because he was a sweet boy). The other coach was nice enough to explain to me how a real kickoff worked, but oh! The humiliation.

There was more to come. Our opponents had a multiple players with experience. They scored 3 goals in quick succession. (We didn’t technically keep score, as the score wasn’t supposed to matter and AYSO labored under the delusion that five-year-olds couldn’t count.) After the 3rd goal, one of their players smirked and told  Ohta, “Your team sucks ass!”

I loomed over him and barked, “What did you say?!”

The white kid turned an even whiter shade of pale and looked down. I might be shit at soccer, but sportsmanship? I’d spent T-ball season listening to insane sports parents and had Very Strong Feelings on youth sports sportsmanship. I’d already lectured my team and parents twice. (One negative word and parents were leaving, their kids were benched, and screw the AYSO rule that “everyone plays.”) Apparently, other coaches were more foolishly optimistic permissive.

I marched Little Mr. Sucks Ass to the center of the field and addressed the parents of the other team: “Whose kid is this?”

Every parent looked everywhere but at me. No one claimed him. Either his parents were too ashamed, or they weren’t even there for their child’s first game. No wonder the kid was acting out.

I marched him to the other coach, explained what I’d heard.

The other coach said, in very sad, disappointed tones, “Oh, buddy. We don’t say those things.”

I’d’ve had Mr. Sucks Ass sit out the rest of the game. His coach let him stay in, possibly because the kid was near tears.

We managed to keep the other team from scoring again. Ohta got a couple shots off, but they went wide and we lost (even though we didn’t keep score).

Half the team didn’t care about the score (or couldn’t count). The other half (including my own son), were cross until they got their post-game snack.

I was a little cross myself. I was the only female coach, and I’d gotten the worst team. Shocker. I spent hours figuring out which games would help our team improve. I spent even more fretting over the psychological issue: with an inexperienced team that wasn’t likely to win any games, how was I going to keep the kids from getting discouraged and quitting? Fun practices were all well and good, but they had to have the chance to win something.

The boys had named our team the Hawks, for the big red-tailed hawks that soared over our practice field. Which gave me an idea.

At the end of the next practice, I called the Hawks into a huddle. I praised them for their hard work, and gave each one a specific job to do for the next game based on their skill level: “Ohta, see if you can shoot from a little further out. Nicholas, don’t be afraid—all I want is for you to kick the ball once. I know you can do it. Baby D, even if we lose, you still need to shake hands with the other team. Next week, I want you to do that instead of glaring and crossing your arms. And Caleb? Yes, the flowers are super pretty, but the bees need them for pollen. So all I want next game is for you not to pick any flowers, okay?”

Then I pulled out an enormous white feather and announced, “This feather is for the player who did something amazing in the last game.” I handed it to Ohta as the other boys “ooohed” and “aaahhed.”

One envious kid asked, “Is it because Ohta nearly had a goal?”

“No. It’s because when another boy was rude and unkind, Ohta let the referees handle it instead of punching the kid in the nose. That showed good judgment and sportsmanship,” I said, carefully not looking at my own child. “Every week, one player on our team will get a feather. Maybe it will be for sportsmanship. Maybe it will be for cheering their teammates on loudly. Maybe it will be because they listened to their coach. You never know!”

Our team improved each week (not really surprising, since there was literally no place to go but up). The boys learned that if they kicked a teammate’s soccer ball away, they’d have to go get it. Our practices grew moderately less chaotic. We even scored a few goals.

But the highlight of their soccer week was finding out who had won the coveted feather. Amazingly, the feather presentation was more exciting than snacks.

I didn’t lose a single player that season.

And technically, of course, we didn’t lose a single game.*


*Because technically we didn’t keep score.

**I think we actually won the game when it rained and the opposing team refused to get out of their cars and take the field.

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Autumn Ashbough

WF writing about the humorous perils of life with Chinese-American significant other.

14 thoughts on “The Reluctant Coach (#292)”

    1. I think it’s more like a fascination with psychological studies–especially the one where the pigeon pecks at the bar to get food. If it always gets food, it always pecks at the bar until the food stops. Then it will stop. But if it only gets food some of the time? It will peck forever. I was just variably conditioning my team with a potential feather, instead of winning games. And they all got the feather at least once!

      But my patience was sorely tried. Long before COVID-19, I was lobbying hard for teachers to get a pay raise. Those old white men who think they worked so hard, but now teachers have it so easy have never tried to manage 25 kindergarteners for 5 hours. I only had 10 boys for an hour twice a week and I wanted all the alcohol.

  1. I really love the way you slid Baby D’s Game Suggestion Response to Archetypical Ashboughness into the middle of your list of suggestions.


  2. Oh my goodness! You have me laughing and in awe of your ability to coach [gently manipulate?] the boys into doing the right things. You are a saint to even have tried to do this, let alone do it so well– and memorably.

  3. Awesome job, coach!

    I got into soccer around the 2006 World Cup and have been a casual fan ever since, but I couldn’t tell you what offsides means either. Confusing matters even more, I think the rule is totally different for hockey.

    1. Thanks! I have learned since then that offsides is pretty easy to define: no attacking player can progress further than a) the soccer ball or b) any defender except for the goalie. So you can’t just hang out by the other team’s goalpost and wait for a pass.

      What’s offsides in hockey?

      1. In hockey, an offside play is when a player on the attacking team enters the attacking zone (crosses the blue line) before the puck itself enters the attacking zone.

  4. As a childless person, this is all very fascinating and terrifying. I played soccer for ten years of my childhood but still cannot imagine having the courage to coach a team of five-year-old boys. Also, I can’t even envision a five-year-old child saying the words “sucks ass”.

If you liked this, let the white girl know!