Mary Grace Gallagher: Season’s end brings lessons to the Annapolis youth soccer fields
By Mary Grace Gallagher
Oct 20, 2019 | 6:18 AM
I was standing in the hot, merciless glare of the sun, surrounded by 16 sweaty 3-year-olds wearing shin guards when the father of one stepped up to my husband and seized him by the elbow.
“Danielle really isn’t developing as a player the way I expected her to,’’ the man said. “We’ll be moving her to another team.’’
Oh man, I thought, no one prepared us for this part of coaching.
For three Saturdays in a row, my family had been producing our own version of a three-ring circus, only our show took place on a soccer field and the audience was a squad of parents. They would arrive with dogs and siblings in tow, set up their beach chairs and umbrellas and coolers full of juice boxes. Then filming began.
At any given time during that restless hour of practice, three or four video recordings were being made, many of them featuring my yoga pants and my husband’s red, slightly pulsating face as we tried to cajole and corral a team of tots that included our own son.
Calling this crew of wailing and wandering preschoolers a team may be a stretch. Several families ignored the age cutoffs and slipped their “very precocious” 2½-year-olds onto the team. We spent a lot of the time just trying to round the children up as they strayed towards the nearby playground. We leaned heavily upon invented games like “kick the bunny,’’ which involved planting a plush pink bunny in a goal and whacking it savagely with tiny green soccer balls.
Mind you, this was our first year of coaching soccer and neither one of us knew much about team dynamics. Or soccer.
We managed to enjoy athletic endeavors like canoeing, cross-country skiing and mountain biking together, but we never really learned how to play on a team. In fact, we were both — on separate years by the same coach — passed over for the Suncrest Seals, our Junior High basketball team.
I got canned because, despite my coaches’ nagging instruction to turn around, I would hunch over the ball and awkwardly back up to the basket while the other team closed in. Chris didn’t make it because he simply cannot make any ball go into any basket on a first try.
Despite my ineptitude, team players have always been a fascination; the way they synchronize on a field; the way their uniforms and mascots are totems for rituals unknown to mere spectators; the way they willingly share a spotlight.
So, with two seasons on our oldest son’s sidelines behind us, we volunteered to teach children just out of diapers how to build skills and endurance and learn to be a team.
We soon realized that that objective was too lofty. What we settled for was simply keeping the children entertained. We also tried to get them comfortable with a soccer ball.
For an hour each week, we sweated bullets keeping the team happy. We played ring-around-the-soccer-balls. We used puppets to tell them how to cooperate. We broke up the hour with snack time and a long stretching period. We played “kick-the-coach” and “chase-the-coach” and we spent a long time each Saturday reviewing each other’s names in a series of name games that mostly helped us, the coaches, know the difference between Jake, Jack and Josh, Brody and Brady, Austin and Ethan.
We were starting to introduce some soccer skills to the entertainment lineup when Danielle’s dad spoke up.
Danielle, a delicate blonde in Cindy-Lou-Who pigtails, had actually been playing pretty well. Sure, she still carried the ball under her arm through most of the drills, but she was not one of the ones who would end every scrimmage in her mother’s arms, crying because somebody kicked the ball away from her.
What could her father be thinking? There may be better teams out there, but certainly none more entertaining than our Leopards. And, besides, the season would be over before Danielle would feel comfortable chasing some other coach around the field the way she chased us.
“I’m sorry to hear that,’’ Chris finally told Danielle’s dad, though that’s not what I wanted to say.
In my mind, I told Danielle’s father that if he wanted his daughter to develop into a team player, he should leave her on our chaotic little team. That he should put down his video recorder and stand behind the pink bunny in the goal cage and shout “Help, help! You’re hurting me!” the way the kids loved for us to do. That a coach could only teach Danielle so much; but a team could draw her off the sidelines for the rest of her life.
Then Danielle’s dad started to laugh. And my husband's red, perspiring face relaxed. Here again, was another unexpected aspect of coaching kids’ sports: friendships we’ve come to cherish.
“It’s a joke!” the man said, slapping Chris' back jocularly. “You’ve been doing a great job. Danielle loves coming to soccer.’’
Over the last 15 years, I moved to the sidelines and Chris took on responsibilities with one club after another as our kids aged up and out of teams. This fall, as he marks the end of coaching our youngest son in soccer, the lessons learned that first-year continue to inform.
The faces inching over him on the field have acne and whiskers now and their penalty kicks would obliterate the old pink bunny. The real difference between now and the Leopard days, though, is that whenever those boys run a well-practiced play, turn a game around, or pull each other up off the field in wins and losses alike, they look to the red-faced guy who has been standing by the bench all along, yelling encouragement and instruction.
When the season comes to a close in a few weeks, he will join those sweaty young men in the ritual of shaking hands with the opposing players and referees, like he has hundreds of times before.
Then he’ll gather all the balls, first aid kit and extra gear in his unwieldy bag, pick up the roster and extra coolers of water and ice and, in all likelihood, be the last guy to walk off the pitch, knowing what it means to be valued member of the team.