Seven years. That’s about twice what any high school or college coach gets with a group of players. But the distance in skill and understanding from kindergarten to almost-middle school, from their very first practice to their last elementary school game, is immeasurable.
When these kids started, most of them couldn’t tie their own cleats. They were tiny, with gap-toothed grins and knobby knees and not a whole lot of coordination. Over the years they’ve become more than better soccer players; they’ve become a team.
I’ve watched as this crew has progressed from toe balls and clumsy dribbling to quick moves and long crosses and power shots. I’ve seen them transition from little kids who sometimes didn’t know which way on the field their team was going to poised players who make clever runs off the ball, from bunch ball and chaos to smart defense and tactical offense.
Coaching these kids has been part parental responsibility, but mostly a labor of soccer love. I love the game, love sharing it with others, have loved watching these kids learn and grow on the field.
I coached them through their first jamboree as kindergartners to their first Halloween Cup as third-graders. I held my breath with them when, as fourth-graders, they triumphed through three penalty kick decisions and incessant cold rain to reach the finals of the last tournament of the season, then – bone tired and thoroughly drenched – lost that game. I stood with three of these girls – and their year-older teammates – at last year’s Halloween Cup final, where they went down to a penalty kick loss after not giving up a goal all day.
A coach can teach kids to pass and shoot and defend, but there was little I could do on either of those days except tell them how proud I was of their grit, and then let them feel the loss. It’s all a part of the game, a part of the learning process, a part of growing up.
Gradually, they’ve grown together – both on and off the field. They’re a good mix of sassy and tough, goofy and competitive, and they make a great team. I feel lucky to have been their coach – one of a small crew of coaches – as they’ve learned their way around a soccer field.
One more game, one more practice, one more tournament. Then I pass them along to the next season, the next coach. And, for this group at least, I graduate to soccer spectator. You can bet I’ll be there cheering these kids on when they take the field next year.