They Call Me 'Coach'

It was a small box on my daughter's registration form for soccer. So I checked it off, scrawling "if needed" in the margin.

Eventually, the phone rang.

I hadn't played the game since a summer league in the eighth grade, and my college rugby cleats had long since disintegrated. But by the next morning, a large mesh bag of old balls and orange cones sat on my doorstep with a box of new blue uniforms. The clipboard had a schedule, a roster, and a book on coaching. Our first game was that weekend, and I could hold practice on Tuesdays behind the tennis courts at the junior high.

And that's where I found myself. Scuffing around the freshly-lined field in a pair of beat-up old running shoes. Shouting instructions to 11 girls in jerseys that came down to their knees. Feeling like I was bluffing with a pair of twos. Fortunately, eight-year-olds are still fairly gullible. And with a tip of their caps, my assistant coaches - two gracious dads who had to leave work early - played up the charade. We had everyone believing I was head coach.

Even me.

Halfway through the season, I went out and bought myself a whistle.

We were 6 and 4 that fall. A respectable record for an intramural league where one-third of the kids were no-shows at any given game. But over the winter we lost our two best strikers - one to the boys' league and one to karate. In the spring, we went 0-8-1.

The girls were quite resilient. They ran around after games squirting each other with their water bottles and squealing.

I, of course, was a wreck. Each week, my husband had to talk me down off the ledge.

He'd been a strong college player with several awards to show for it, and had put in his own three years as a coach for our kids. So I was almost tempted to listen to him.

"Pay no attention to those other parents," he said. "If they really knew what they were talking about, they'd be coaching instead of kibitzing."

And, "Soccer is a game of control and patience. These are eight-year-olds."

And finally, "You can't play the game for them. At the end of the day, they have to win or lose it on their own."

I hate it when he's right.

Yet I couldn't help feeling that I had let the girls down. That I hadn't done enough to help them realize their potential. So I tried to learn all I could about the game: I watched European teams on satellite television, attended clinics, read up on tactics and drills, and took copious notes on my husband's observations and advice.

When that didn't work, I just prayed for a rainout.

We lost every game. Came in last at the round-robin tournament. And after year-end tryouts for the traveling teams, the majority of my girls ended up in the least competitive league. As did my daughter.

For her, a small nine-year-old who holds great hopes of playing World Cup soccer, this seemed like a pretty major setback. Perhaps. But at this stage, she's where she belongs. Where they all belong.

In this league, I reasoned, they will have the greatest opportunity for success. They'll be up against girls of comparable speed, size, and skill. It'll take more hard work, more enthusiasm, more humor, and more coaching.

But please, I entreated silently, let this clipboard pass from me. Let someone else guide them to that laurel crown around the corner.

Over the summer, I cleared out stacks of school papers my daughter had collected in her room. In one of them, I came upon an end-of-the-year questionnaire: What's your favorite color, subject, food, movie? The kids were to compare their answers to what they had written on the first day of school.

In the fall, my daughter wrote that she liked blue, wanted to be a tennis player, and the people she most admired were her parents. By June, she still liked blue but wanted to be a soccer player. (This after only one win that season.)

And the person she most admired?

I stared at the cramped cursive letters.

My coach.

* This fall, the Tornadoes lost their first three games of the season by a combined score of 27-0. Following a realignment of teams in the traveling leagues, my team has been assigned to a new section and gone 2-2-0. After rainouts and flood delays, we'll be playing every Saturday until mid-November.

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