December 02, 2010

The Coach

A pack of 6.5 year-old girls run after a black and white ball. Oblivious to the cheers and the exhortation of their parents some break off pursuit to chase butterflies, talk about their puppies or watch birds fly overhead. In time those that have forgotten that they are playing a game will remember and go chasing after that elusive ball. They will run with smiles on their faces, pony tails bouncing in the air.

Eventually one of the teams will score a goal and there will be much cheering and laughter. They will high five each other and look for their parents along the sideline shouting questions like, "did you see me mom?" Sometimes older siblings will roam the sidelines shouting out words of encouragement too. The girls are very appreciative and lap it up.

It is night time now and the last game of the season has come and gone. For one night the team is meeting at a local restaurant to celebrate their time together. I stand in the back and watch these girls laugh and giggle together. One of them calls me daddy and the rest call me coach. I stand and watch them play together and I smile.

"My name is Jack and this is John" I say. It is the end of August and my co-coach and I are meeting our team for the first time. A few feet away a group of mothers try to stay cool as they watch us interact with their daughters. The weather report says that it is supposed to be more than a 100 degrees today so we're not going to do much. It is really a chance to introduce ourselves and to let the girls meet each other.

It is not my first time as a coach, but it is my first time coaching a girls team and I realize how different it is. Maybe it is not right or not fair, but we take a softer approach to the girls. We will push them but differently than the boys. We want them to have fun and that is the focus, but when their are nicks, scrapes and bruises we'll talk to the girls in a softer voice. Socialization is taking place. I am aware of it, but not sure how I feel. I haven't really thought about it that much.

Later on it will occur to me that we are much harder on boys in general. They get thrown out into the world and are told to just suck it up. Girls are allowed to cry and show emotion in ways that boys cannot. But that is a tale for a different day.

We lose our first game...badly. The girls don't care and we don't make a big deal out of it. This is about fun. The days pass, we have one practice and then a few days later another game. We lose again. Several more weeks will pass and we will lose those games too. The girls have finally begun to complain about losing. John and I don't tell them that we don't like it either, that is not our job.

Our job is to have fun with them, teach them how to be part of a team and then win. Not every coach approaches it like that. During the season I will have words with one who takes it too seriously. I won't let him yell in a negative manner. He'll glare at me and I'll suggest that he join me in my basketball game. I tell him that out there he can do what he wants and I assure him that I will match his desire to win. But I won't bring that sort of intensity to the girls.

At home my daughter complains again that she doesn't like losing. I explain to her that the losses could easily have gone the other way. It is a true statement but she doesn't have the life experience to understand that. She doesn't see how we could have just as easily been undefeated. I do my best to remind her that we are there to have fun and to remember that she will be playing for years.

She kisses and hugs me good night and I smile. But her words stick with me and I want her to experience winning. If we added a second practice it would make a significant difference. We lose because the girls are inexperienced and they don't do what they should. One more day would help them to remember but this is about fun and I am not going to suggest the extra work. Between soccer, school and everything else they do it is enough.

At the next practice a group of teenage girls set up camp next to us. My girls watch them closely. They want to be like the big girls. In concept I like the idea of role models but I am not real comfortable with this. The teenage banter isn't what I want to hear. Some are complaining about their bodies and I really don't want that. I don't want my girls to hear the one moan about how she wishes her "fat ass and big hips" would disappear.

It is getting late and soon it will be time for these girls to go to sleep. John and I call them together and thank them for playing so hard. We hand out trophies and along with the other parents clap for the children. My girls are about to say goodbye to their first team. I wonder if they will remember this experience or if it will be lost beneath the million other experiences that are going to come.

We thank them again and get ready to leave. The mothers hug and the fathers shake hands goodbye. My daughter reaches out her arms and I pick her up. She is exhausted and I am happy to carry her to the car. There won't be much more of this. Even though for years to come I will be strong enough to carry her I know that these moments are limited. The thought is bittersweet.

When we reach our home I'll carry her inside and listen to her whisper "thank you daddy." Just before she drifts off to sleep I'll ask her if she had fun and she'll smile and nod her head. And again I will wonder if she will remember this time with me. Will she remember when daddy truly was young and had no gray hair. Will she remember running up the field with daddy or will it get lost among her memories.

She is softly snoring now and I smile. Why am I concerned with her remembering me as being young. Maybe that is my own ego talking. What I know is that I will remember this time. I'll remember it for a million reasons. This is where I discovered that when it comes to sports she plays like I do with reckless abandon. I don't love her any more or any less for this. It was just a pleasant surprise.

When I walk out of the room I will still be smiling. We lost every game but one but they had fun so I guess I can say "mission accomplished."

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