Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Cleats Hurt...

In case I forgot this basic rule of soccer, my little girls last night reminded me that, indeed, cleats do hurt when it is YOUR foot underneath them.  In case you've forgotten from the way long ago post "So Who Am I?", item number twelve was "I am a soccer coach."

But given that it was February when I wrote that, soccer wasn't one of the foremost topics on my mind to write about, so I'm not sure I've mentioned it since.  But soccer practices have started and soccer games will begin in a few weeks.  Between now and the end of October, I will have soccer on the brain.

Now you're probably wondering why a childless cube shaped Borg is coaching soccer, and frankly the answer is that I was trapped.  A friend of mine with a seven year old daughter coached her daughter's team two years ago and asked me if I would be the assistant coach.  I loved her daughter like my own, and enjoyed this friend's company very much, so the answer was a no-brainer. 

And then, just as practices were beginning two years ago, her husband got a really great job opportunity in another state and before the season was over, she was gone, and I was head coach.  And, I was hooked. 

To be clear, I didn't know much about soccer, having last played it seriously in my pee wee league days at 4 years old.  I understood there was a black and white round ball that you kicked towards the net.  I can't say two years later I necessarily know much more about the sport (okay, maybe a wee bit more), but I coach 6/7 year old girls, and the good news is that I don't need to know much more. 

What I really need to know most at this age is that young girls' self esteem is starting to grow.  And the likelihood that I am going to coach the next Mia Hamm (or whoever the great women's soccer stars are these days) is slim.  But what I do have an opportunity to do is give these girls a fun time and help them learn a few life lessons. 

I know I have a lot of Mamas who read my blog, and you can probably provide me much greater insight into the psyche of a young girl (and please feel free to add below in the comments), but I'll share a few things I've noticed.

First of all, I have been pretty fortunate to have some really great parents who stick around and hang out for their kids' practice.  Maybe leaving their kids with the Borg is a little frightening - assimilation at such a young age - but I do think that these parents are invested in their children's lives.  Even if some of them are absorbed in a book or a phone on the sideline.  I can still call over to a parent to come on the field to help, and get some active volunteers.

At age six/seven, kids are like an overly absorbent sponge for attention.  They can never seem to get enough, and I'm sure their parents are worn down after a long summer's day of trying to entertain them.  Any personalized attention they get they soak up faster than you realize and are ready to absorb more, and yet, sometimes keeping their attention in a group setting is not always easy.

They're still new to each other and new to making friends so watching them interact with each other and get to know each other - or recognize - Wait! I know that girl... - is fun to watch.  Teaching them that they are a team, and that they are now the same, and not other is also important.  This is no longer that girl from the other class, or even from the other team of the sport you just played. This girl is now YOUR team-mate.  She is part of "you" - at least the you on the field.  (See, I teach assimilation - resistance IS futile).

The first session I always forget how very shy they are.  We want the kids to be able to call to each other from across the field to tell them to pass to them, or warn them that they are passing, but on the very first session their voice barely raises above a whisper and can hardly be heard more than a few feet away.  Fortunately by Week 2, I have no trouble hearing them!

Few, if any, of the girls are only children, and so often they are fighting within the family for attention, too.  Here, on my team, they gain nine more sisters.  Or so I hope...

The words I hope that come out of my lips the most during practice are "Great job!"  And hopefully along with it, I am using their (correct) name, so they know I am talking to THEM.  I encourage enthusiasm, I encourage attitude (good attitude, let's be clear), I encourage effort.  I encourage fun.  I encourage good sportsmanship.  I try, my best, to encourage them.

It goes back to "Sticks & Stones" (maybe there's a reason it's one of the favorites).  They hear the negative, just like us adults, ten times louder than the good.  So I encourage them with the good.  Now, of course, when they start to get too full of themselves, or when they start to put down their other team-mates, I am quick to nip that in the bud, too.  I remind them that we are all trying our best, and that it's great they've figured out how to x or y, but their team-mate is learning, too.  And to remember, that when they first tried it, it wasn't easy for them either. 

Each girl does need special attention.  Each girl is different.  I have one little girl who is actually only 5 years old, and while the smallest on the team, she isn't the smallest by much.  But it is easy for her to trip over her ball while running.  She's got a great attitude, and a great smile, but she's shy and I think she knows she's the smallest and the youngest.  I think she's doing great, but I try to take more time with her on the skills that the older girls have already practiced or gotten a little easier.

Another little girl is working her way into my heart.  I think she is worried about falling over while trying to run and kick the ball, too, because I frequently (if not always) see her running with her arms out to the side as if she's trying to keep her balance.  And it's hard to get her much faster than a walk.  She's a bit shy, too, but I know better that these girls are often the ones that end up surprising me when the games start.

Really, you should never write off the little girls.  They are usually amazingly fast and surprisingly good ball-handlers sometimes.  On all three of my teams, the best ball handlers have actually been the small unassuming girls you'd never expect.  At last night's practice, for example, while we were waiting for everyone to show, this tiny quiet little girl was dribbling around the field with me trying to take the ball away from her.  She showed remarkable talent in maneuvering the ball and keeping it close to her.  One of her team-mates noted last night after practice had started that she's "sneaky".  While every girl will play every position during the games, at this level, there is no question that when I am looking for a powerful offensive team, she will be on that line-up. 

I've probably gone down a side-road here as I start to think of each of my girls individually that is not nearly as exciting for you, my reader, as it is for me.  But in this time of Olympic athletic wonder, it is important to remember that for most ordinary Americans, participating in youth sports will not lead us to Olympic Gold.  But if we give our children the appropriate opportunities to excel and to learn and to build their self-esteem and to learn to work with others, they will have with them a life-time achievement much greater than Olympic gold. 

I hope, at the end of the season, the girls have had fun, and want to come back.  That is my goal. Not the wins, nor having the number of wins be greater than the losses (although last season it was nice to start with an undefeated season the first four or five games, and in my first season, we lost the first game, but won the next eleven... it helps!).  But that they've learned to work together.  They've learned to literally, and figuratively, shoot for a goal.  They've learned to support each other, and they've learned not to be cruel to others.  (There are no Terrell Owens' moments allowed on my field - we collectively celebrate a goal, but we do not rub it into the other teams' faces, and we are NOT nasty to the other team when they score a goal... ). 

In one soccer coaching book I read, they claimed that kids never forget their soccer coaches, and remember them still as adults.  I am not so vain to believe that is true - as I can't remember my soccer coach - but I do hope that what they walk away with is a positive experience that will yield more positive experiences as they grow.  And that they remember, most importantly, that when they step on their coach's foot, that cleats hurt.

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