Innocents Afield: Soccer for the Tricycle Set

I coach my daughter's soccer team of four- and five-year-olds, and one dad told me I look like someone out there trying to herd cats.

The YMCA league we play in lets coaches on the field for this group, and at the beginning of the season our primary function is that of a compass.

Kids this age derive great glee from simply dribbling the ball toward the horizon - any horizon. So the first rule of coaching is simply direction.

During the first game my coaching sounded something like this:

"Bobby, you're going the wrong way. No, Bobby, turn around and kick it the other way. Bobby. Bobby! OK, Bobby, you scored a goal, but it was for the other team."

There's quite a bit of pointing involved. Sometimes entire sidelines of parents are all frantically pointing in the same direction, like a mime troupe trying to warn of an avalanche.

The cacophony when these mime-parents are allowed to yell directions at their kids can be overwhelming. When an entire sideline is frantically yelling directions and a poor kid is frantically trying to follow them, it can build to such a crescendo that it seems someone might spontaneously combust. I'd bet on a parent.

The directions to the parents of our team are very specific:

1. Never yell at a referee, player, parent, or coach - especially me.

2. Everything you say must be positive.

3. Your encouragement must be generic; leave specific directions to the coach.

All the parents of my team follow these rules, so instead of spontaneously combusting, the kids do a great job of listening. I find there's always a positive way to correct kids, even if they succumb to the temptation to just pick up the ball and run with it. "You're too good a soccer player to need to touch the ball with your hands!" has always worked for me.

Four-year-olds playing with five-year-olds is not always ideal, because sometimes it looks like toddlers playing with teenagers. Some four-year-olds literally never touch the ball during play. They just kind of wander around looking at dandelions or bugs or whatever else is of interest out on the field.

Julian is a sweet neighborhood four-year-old who is a great skier. He has little familiarity with soccer, however, and he wanders around the field looking at things as if he were lost at a county fair. The fact that he wears a beanie with a propeller on top doesn't help his image. When I give him the ball for a throw-in from the sidelines, he gives me his beanie, throws the ball in over his head, then takes back the beanie from me.

Three kids from the team I coached last year wanted to be on this year's team, but I thought they would be too good to play with four-year-olds, so they're playing in a league with just five-year-olds.

We lost our first game this year by a fairly substantial margin, and it was too late to get the five-year-old ringers back. No matter how much the players and their coach tried, nobody on this year's team really seemed to get it.

Julian was on his knees, picking dandelions, when I went over to him. "Julian, we'd love to have you play soccer if you'd like to join us," I said. He smiled at me as if he knew something I didn't know. That may have been the case, because at that instant, on the other side of the field and without my coaching, Emma suddenly got it.

You could almost see the light bulb appear over her head. She dribbled the ball half the length of the field and scored. I was so excited, I picked her up and held her over my head, something you won't find in most coaching manuals.

I have never seen a happier child. She was having so much fun, she dribbled more than half the length of the field two more times for goals. If not for the weight of her shinguards and shoes, she might have floated away with euphoria.

Alden was one of the first to emulate Emma. Though he's one of the youngest four-year-olds, he's helped by the fact that his father plays with him in the park every day. The opposing team's coach was speeding up the game by keeping the ball in play even if it went out of bounds by several yards, so Alden became the first soccer player in history to dribble the ball the length of the field beginning 10 yards behind his own goal.

Niles is the team's whirling dervish, running around the perimeter of everyone else on the field. He's a classic sweeper (the last line of defense before the goalie), but also a classic striker (the farthest forward goal-scorer). Actually, he might be soccer's first striker-sweeper.

One by one, almost all of Emma and Alden and Niles's teammates have scored goals, and smiled not a smile of conquest or victory but simply a smile of joy at comprehending what the game is about. Every week they pass to each other more and become more of a team, celebrating their team's accomplishments more than their own. It's not coincidence that they haven't lost a game since.

They tied the team that beat them the first week, and Evan had the best attitude I've ever heard from someone involved in a tie when he yelled, "We both won! We both won!"

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