Friday, July 2, 2021

The Beautiful Game

When my kids were in kindergarten, I started coaching their soccer teams through the local recreation department. I love soccer. Loved playing it as a kid, then in college, then out in Colorado, and for one summer on a ragtag team of women from teenaged to middle-aged in Ireland. So of course I loved coaching it, too. It was gratifying to see the kids – my own and their classmates – progress from kindergarten all the way through elementary school, at which point I moved to the spectating side of the field.

It was a bit of a bummer last fall when my youngest and her classmates missed out on their last year of rec soccer – and their last chance to vie for the coveted Halloween Cup, that annual end-of-the-season tournament, played on the home field, right next to the playground they’ve all been swinging and sliding and climbing through since they were toddlers. My friend Mike and I still got to coach the kids in practices and intrateam scrimmages, but it wasn’t quite the same without the competition of playing against other teams. And while I sympathized with the kids, I also felt a twinge of my own remorse for missing out on this last year of coaching.

Still, I hesitated this spring when I was asked to help with my youngest daughter’s club team. Just having two of my kids playing spring soccer was a big time commitment, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to add one more thing to my plate. But in the end, I figured if I was going to be sitting at practices and driving to games anyway, I may as well help out – as long as I didn’t have to be in charge of planning practices or any of the administrative stuff. Basically, I agreed to be there to follow someone else’s lead.

In all the years I’ve coached (both soccer and skiing) I’ve been lucky to have some strong leads to follow. I’ve learned from the people I’ve coached with – and from watching many of the coaches who have guided my kids’ athletic endeavors when I’m on the other side of the field (or the ski slope) with the spectators.

This spring’s coaching experience was different than coaching fall soccer. Many of the kids, I met for the first time in April, when we started kicking the ball around inside. Some of them I knew from two years ago – pre Covid – when they’d first played on the same team with my daughter. The only one I’d known since kindergarten was my own. One of the perks of coaching, though, is that you get to know the kids differently than when you’re a parent on the sideline. And this group of girls was super fun to get to know. They are silly while still being competitive. Smart. Sometimes a little sassy. Tough. And supremely coachable.

Scott, whose lead I got to follow this spring, is one of those coaches who has an innate ability to connect with players. If you’ve ever had a good coach, you’ll know what I mean here. They exude good energy. They’re almost always positive. They expect you to play to your potential and will tell you – in a constructive way – when you can do better. When you have a coach like that, you always try your hardest, always want to play more, play better.

These girls worked hard and had fun through the season, whether it was 90 degrees and oppressively humid or 45 and raining. Girls who early in the season told me they simply couldn’t kick the ball with their left foot were, by June, making defensive clears, attacking crosses, and even a goal or two – with that left foot. Girls who had been timid during the first games became confident. Girls who hardly knew each other off the field somehow connected on it – learning which passes to send and which runs to make and how to work together.

Sometimes, on the sidelines during games, we coaches meted out tactical advice. Often, we just watched the girls play and relished their love of the game. Who knows where soccer might lead them? Onto a high school team, maybe, or even college. To a team in a Colorado ski town, or a village in the west of Ireland. Perhaps, someday, these girls will be on the coaching side of the field, guiding the next group of youngsters through the beautiful game.

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's July 1, 2021 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record.