V drills, square plays - and a real team win

I was in the midst of a typical team practice with my second-grade soccer players, when two of the girls' moms verbally lambasted me.

The afternoon was like most of the afternoons I spent as volunteer coach of the All-Stars. I think that's what had the moms upset. I taught my 7-year-old girls cheers, hugged them when they fell down, and dared them to chase me around the neighborhood gym where we often practiced. I showed them how to play "red light, green light" while dribbling a ball.

I had a similar style during our games. It seems, however, that I got it all wrong. That's what I learned when the first mom, Leslie, approached me.

Her daughter, Rachel, had shed a few tears the week before, after one of our opponents, the Tigers, slammed us 11-0. Their team was made up of girls who wore custom-made uniforms stamped with their names and who practiced twice a week. My team consisted of 11 neighborhood girls whom I had cajoled into signing up along with my daughter, Ally, because she was dying to play.

Leslie waved a clipboard stocked with soccer drills she'd downloaded from the Internet. "I'm going to coach today," she announced. "They need to learn about the V, to practice the square drill, and we'll also juggle the ball.

"Lisa, these girls are almost 8 years old," she added. "They can do much more than you're teaching them. With a little help from me, they could start winning."

The other mom backed her up, saying, "It would be nice if they could actually win a game."

I invited Leslie to take charge. But my face flushed and a rush of questions coursed through me. "Was it my fault the Tigers creamed my girls?" And the suddenly critical question: "Why am I coaching, and what are these girls supposed to be learning?"

More than anything, I wanted my girls to have fun. I also hoped they would succeed. But wasn't success about more than winning?

While I considered these questions, Leslie gathered the players around her and launched into the juggling move. I felt a surge of disappointment when my players eagerly followed her instructions.

Maybe Leslie's right, I thought. I'm not challenging my players.

While Leslie tried to corral the girls into the V drill, I thought back to my many years playing soccer. I remembered laughing so hard I cried the day my best friend, Marne, was so nervous she scored for the other team..

But the wins? The losses? I don't remember one.

The successes? There were plenty. We were successful when we all helped calm Marne down enough to dribble in the right direction. I felt a personal win when I began shooting with my left foot - even though I was right-handed.

I realized that I coached the way I parented, identifying each girl's strengths and trying to build on them. My lessons, I believed, couldn't be downloaded from the Internet.

Feeling more confident, I tapped Leslie on the shoulder. "How about we scrimmage?" I asked.

"Yeah!" yelled the girls. I picked teams and assigned my players positions.

I felt torn between my desire to please the moms and my instincts to continue coaching the girls in the same style. OK, I decided; I'll try something new. I'll be really clear about what I'm aiming for. I'll give each girl a special assignment. Maybe the moms will notice that I know my players' strengths and weaknesses.

"Max, you're the queen of defense," I said. "Just do what comes naturally." I turned to my daughter. "Ally, you have longer legs than Wilt Chamberlain. Go after that ball!" I pulled Rachel to my side. "You really know where to be at the right moment and how to whack that ball. Make sure you whack it to one of your teammates."

As I gave each girl her directions, she nodded, as if memorizing her lesson.

"Good defense, queen," I called when Max blocked a goal. "Great job talking to each other!" I yelled.

I picked up little Sarah when she got hit in the knee and wiped the tears from her eyes. When Allegra accused Ally of hogging the ball, I reminded the girls to be nice to one another.

I felt a rush of excitement when it was clear that the girls actually understood their assignments. Ally was running, Max was defending - and they were all shouting out instructions to one another.

Leslie looked a little happier, but she still wasn't satisfied. "They're focusing more, but they're not shooting enough," she called. "They're not scoring!"

I went over to her. What I had failed to tell the moms was that my job was not only to ensure these kids built on their strengths.

I also wanted them to experience the small but important wins: the sound of laughter, the touch of friendship, the taste of teamwork. I wanted to make sure they remembered all of this long after they recalled the season's stats.

I pointed to the red-faced girls, who were running as fast as their little legs could carry them, laughing and high-fiving one another when they completed passes and blocked shots.

"Do those girls look like losers?" I asked.

At that moment, Rachel passed the ball to Ally, who charged down the center of the field. Her pass completed, Rachel cheered and sprinted over and presented me with a hug so spontaneous and so real I got goose bumps.

Leslie smiled, and I believe she was beginning to understand. That was our success; that was our win.

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