Maggie, my daughter, was deftly dribbling the soccer ball down the sideline. "In the middle, Maggie," I yelled, intending for her to pass the ball in front of the goal for a teammate to slam home. "In the middle."
With that, Maggie, my seven-year-old, went racing to the middle of the field, leaving the ball behind like a chunk of radioactive matter. For a moment, all the other players stood clear of the ball, too, as if they were waiting for some brilliant strategy to unfold. When none did, the kids all shook themselves back into frenetic activity and the trouncing of our team resumed.
It occurred to me then that perhaps I hadn't been much of a children's indoor soccer coach.
To be honest, there had been one or two other signs. My record, for example. Since last fall, I have coached three different pee-wee soccer teams to a combined mark of 1 win, 20 losses and 3 ties.
Sticklers -- including all of the parents of the children I coached -- will insist that even now I am being overly generous to myself. To them, I can only say that while it is technically true that I wasn't present during my team's lone victory, I am convinced that the win demonstrated the wisdom of my system, which I call THE OLLOVE SYSTEM.
This approach is far too complicated to go into in any depth here. Suffice is to say, though, that the fundamental idea is for our team to score goals, preferably more goals than their team. Score goals, and we win, I told the kids. Don't score; we lose.
The players on my team rejected this concept out of hand, and it soon emerged that the hallmark of an Ollove-coached team is that it will not score goals. My teams had aversions to goals (ours, not theirs), as if they believed that scoring would violate a constitutional amendment. They dribbled well. They were great headers. They high-fived and low-fived with the best of them. They just didn't score goals.
The first two teams I coached were exceptional in this regard. We usually spotted the other team six or so goals before taking our first shots. Typically, that occurred as the last seconds ticked off in the game and players from the other team were wandering off the field.
My last team, though, was the champion in non-scoring. We put the ball in the net exactly once all season. When I say "we" here I'm using the word in its broader context. What happened was that a kid on the other team missed the ball with his foot, and then tapped it back into his own goal on the backswing.
Did I care? Don't be ridiculous. I went prancing among my bewildered players, hugging them and cheering as though we had just won the World Cup. Unfortunately, the opposing players kept clear of their own net the rest of the way, effectively defending against our scoring again.
You might think, "Well, coach, why didn't you adjust your game plan?" Adjustment, you've heard the color analyst say, is the telltale sign of a coach's ability. Your team's getting creamed, so you go into the locker room at half-time, analyze the opposition's strengths and weaknesses, adjust your strategy, and come out in the second half a ferocious, unquenchable juggernaut that works its will on the playing field.
There are two things wrong with this sort of thinking. Number one, in pee-wee soccer, there are no locker rooms.
Number two, I tried this, and it didn't work. I gathered the kids around me at half-time. I pointed to the other team's net and noted that we hadn't put the ball within shouting range of it all afternoon. I told them that we were now going to have some of our kids who played defense help out on offense (a very popular but thoroughly disreputable strategy in pee-wee soccer).
I led the kids in a rousing team cheer and everyone ran off to their positions for the second half. Except David. "Coach Mike," asked one of my best players, "what's an offense?"
On reflection, I realize that some of the finer points of strategy eluded my players. For example, if you have ever seen young children playing soccer, you will note that the ball is always surrounded by all 12 children who simultaneously hack away at it like carpenters with hammers. The idea of spreading themselves out and passing the ball seems idiotic to them.
I talked to the kids about the importance of playing their own positions, of cooperation and teamwork, and of passing the ball to keep it away from the opposition. The sum of us, I told them, is greater than the parts. (I knew that most of them had begun arithmetic.) Looking one by one into their eyes, I watched as the light bulb of comprehension went on in each of them.
I wish I could convey to you the gratification a coach feels at such a moment. The idea of the game was finally getting through to my players. They understood. They were ready to make the leap from disorganized to organized sport.
The whistle blew, signaling the beginning of the second half and a new era for our team. In the bat of an eye, my players had the ball surrounded once again and were all kicking away at it.
You might think that all of this losing was taking its toll on my players. On my team of nine-year olds, it was. Sarah, my older daughter, was disconsolate after every loss. "Daddy, why can't we ever win?" she'd ask me glumly as if we were the victims of some great injustice. And certainly, something wonderful was being denied to her and her teammates; that exhilaration that comes from winning and, especially, winning together. Losing had become a terrible burden to these kids, one they desperately wanted to unload.
Just two years younger, Maggie and her teammates seemed far less consumed by issues like winning and losing. I noticed that xTC after every game, during the traditional congratulating of the winners, my players were cutting up as much as the opposition and were in just as high spirits. They had simply had fun playing the game, and the outcome was incidental. They enjoyed running around purposefully. They were proud of the improvements they could see in themselves. They took pleasure in each other. Certainly, they would have preferred to win, but they weren't taking the losing personally.
Which, I discovered, wasn't altogether true of myself. One day, I found myself talking to the mother of one of my players, and it dawned on me that she thought this was what I actually did for a living. I was horrified to think that someone thought that my contribution to society was to be an incompetent soccer coach.
I immediately set her straight. Ma'am, I said, I'm not a professional, just a volunteer.
"Oh how silly of me," she replied sheepishly.
I smiled as I walked out of the gym after my latest defeat until I realized that I hadn't addressed the whole issue of my competence as a coach.
Oh, just as well, I finally decided. I'll just let my record speak for itself.
Michael Ollove is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.