Upon the birth of my first child, I knew two things were my destiny:
- I would be one of those father's who threatened (and, when needed, performed) bodily harm upon any boy who broke his little girl's heart; and,
- I would coach youth sports.
The first destiny is not yet fulfilled (but I'm watching you closely, curly haired, mouth-breather in the third row of homeroom). The second happened earlier this week when I became head wrangler of a herd of 7- and 8-year-old girl soccer players.
I originally volunteered to be an assistant. You know, the guy who always has a needle for the ball pump and a chemical ice bag for a bruised shin. When you need a supporting cast, I'm your Lou Grant, Rhoda Morgenstern and Phyllis Lindestrom -- all in one. But when you give me my own show … well, you tend to wish I had stayed in the newsroom with Murray and Ted.
But I got a frantic e-mail from the league saying they were desperately short of head coaches and would I, pretty please, do it. I hesitated for bit because I always envisioned coaching my children in a sport I actually know something about. Like baseball. Or beer pong.
Then I thought back to Thing 1's last coach. Her wisdom in the sport boiled down to screaming "kick it the other way" for 48 minutes every Saturday morning. The team scored two goals in eight games.
My mission accepted, I immersed myself in every book with variations of the words "youth, " "soccer" and "coaching" in the title providing those words were modified by either "idiot," "dummy" or "ignorant, stupid-ass Dad."
Then it was off to Modell's to indulge in plastic orange cones, a whiteboard with an soccer field diagram on it, and, every youth sport coaches' ace in the hole, pepper spray. Unfortunately, on that last one, I had to settle for a whistle.
I read. I watched video. I drew up a detailed game plan … just for my practices. In fact, I did more work on this than on the presentations I did at my old corporate job. But then, most of those executives only acted like elementary school girls. This time, I was going head to head with the real thing.
When my team showed for its first practice, I repeatedly called every player by the wrong name, even Thing 1 because I didn't want her to get special treatment. I had them play a series of goofy games that I was told would trick them into learning important skills like ball control, passing and showboating so your highlight would make ESPN that night.
They laughed. They giggled. They fell an awful lot, too.
At the end, we played a 5-on-5, free-for-all match that gave me the epiphany I needed. My overarching coaching goal for this season would be simple: Perfect a dance that would bring frequent, violent lightning storms every Saturday morning so our games would be canceled.
Then, we had our second practice. At this one, my assistant coach showed up. He came bearing sheaves of diagrams and definitions. My shortcomings were about to be exposed.
Actually, it was a good balance. He knew something about soccer other than the team with the most goals when the whistle blows wins. He knew technique. He knew skills. He was also willing to play bad cop to my Barney Fife.
"Hey, listen to Coach Uncool or else you're going be taking a lap around the field," he told one hyperactive player. He had missed it early when this same player told me I could easily remember her name because it rhymed with "wacky."
This was unprecedented. No one ever recognizes my authority. Not My Love, not the Things, not the dog. This called for a testing of boundaries.
At the end of practice, I called everyone in.
"Now Coach Joe here really knows his stuff. If he tells you something that is completely different than what I tell you, chances are that he is probably right and I'm wrong," I told my giggly gaggle of girls. "But, since I'm the head coach, you'll still need to do what I say. That's the law."
Tittles of laughter.
"He's right," said Coach Joe. "He's the head coach. You do as he says."
I don't know about you, kids, but I smell … ah, victory.
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