I am utterly absorbed by coaching soccer. This has been a surprising development in my life, with many wonderful consequences including the discovery that I love soccer as much as I love leading people. It is both challenging and fulfilling to help the boys improve at what they do well and strive to get better at what they think they can’t do. I help them show themselves the power of teamwork.
Coaching kids is remarkably like building and leading a work team of adults. Everyone has skills; if you’re lucky those skills somehow apply to the task at hand. Everyone has positive character traits and idiosyncrasies. Getting people to work together takes being respectful and facilitating trust so that our skills are all a means to a productive, rather than discombobulated, end.
They are rowdy 10-12 year old boys, a group I once thought were intimidating aliens. One is my height–I’m only 5′ 1″–and the rest will reach me soon. I only speak English, while among them they speak 4 languages, plus English. I am white; they are a variety of ethnicities or races. They are boys and occasionally use “girl” as a derisive term. I, the feminist, say “hey, who’s a girl? I am, and I’m your coach!” For now, because I play with them, they know I’m stronger and more skilled than they. I’d like to think that makes them re-think what “playing like a girl” means, but maybe not. If I let them stand around, they start chasing one another. I have to work hard to keep my analytical explanations about how things work brief. On the other hand, we are all jokers. We all enjoy learning, whether we know it or not. We all like chasing balls and people, physically muscling our way to possession, and, occasionally, passing. We all want to play a team sport. Go Malden!
At the beginning of any season, I size up each player. Of course I evaluate their soccer skills.
- Mateus has a lovely touch on the ball when he shoots: the ball floats into the net, perfectly located.
- Frank isn’t afraid to try to get the ball away from the best, biggest dribblers, and usually succeeds.
- A natural athlete, Nicholas hasn’t played on a soccer team before but is very fast and scores even though he has terrible technique and often encroaches on teammates trying to gain possession.
- Sushant receives balls in the air or on the bounce, and takes the time to look around to see who to pass to instead of nailing it down field, to no one.
- With muscle and finesse, Jabbar dribbles through traffic from one end of the field to the other.
To get them to gel as a team I have to look beyond how they play soccer.
- A leader. The first day, Bruno volunteered to lead the team in doing stretches. “Come on guys, work it, get that leg in the air.” While I was corralling the defense one day, he decided, on his own, to work with 2 teammates to set up a tricky kickoff play. I know that if I encourage his leadership by giving him responsibilities, he will step up to the plate.
- Ought to be leader. Allistair has excellent soccer skills and he’s smart, so he can direct people into proper positions on the field. He is also a wise guy with a retort for everything. I plan to help him realize that his teammates will like him even more if he goes easier on them, that he can continue to make fun of them, but if he’s nicer about it, they’ll actually do what he tells them to.
- Easily frustrated. Denis is a fierce competitor who wants himself and his team to make good plays. I figured out that he is very hard on himself, which makes him defensive, and especially sensitive about criticism from others. If he is open and the play fails, he is quick to blame people for not passing it to him. My sense of humor (like Allistair’s will be some day), is based on making gentle fun of people, to lighten the mood. That won’t work with Denis. But telling him what he has done well, followed by a tiny suggestion about how to improve next time will. Keeping him from blaming himself and others will help him play more confidently and bond with his teammates.
- The Joker. Louibert reminds me of Flip Wilson, a black guy who ran a variety show in the 1970s that included his over-the-top character Geraldine. Louibert is incredibly funny. Before a scrimmage with another team, I jogged over to tell him to put his pinny on correctly. Then I noticed he was prancing around with his pinny as a bikini top, primping his make-believe long hair, performing his impression of a black woman. When I’ve told him to work harder, he tells me he’s lazy, and rubs his large belly. I’m working on keeping his endless chattering harnessed for team spirit, rather than let loose as taunts against our opponents.
It’s early in the season, but they are already working together on the field. The proof of the pudding is seen in the eating, or, more aptly, in not eating at one another. In the last game, Bruno got a yellow card for pushing opponents rather than purely going for the ball. No one challenged the ref’s call. No one lambasted Bruno. They made mild fun of him for treating soccer like football and I have no doubt will call him on it during practice in a way that he will gracefully accept, which will lead him to go for the ball rather than for the person.
Before the second game of the season, my team of boys spontaneously chanted “team work, team work.” Now that’s never happened at work! I grinned from ear to ear.
Building Teams by Kim Brookes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at Permission to Use.