“To the middle, run to the middle,” I yelled from the sidelines to one of the players on the U9 girls soccer team I’m helping to coach. As her teammate dribbled down the sideline and prepared to send a cross to the middle of the field in the front of the goal, the player turned around and ran back toward the center circle – the middle of the field. I started to yell and then, simply, stopped. After the ball went out of bounds, I called the girl over to the sideline and tried, as best I could, to explain what I had meant. She had a big smile on her face and nodded enthusiastically, and yet I could tell she wasn’t following me. “Just play hard, try to get the ball, and have fun,” I said as I sent her back out on the field.
Coaching 7 and 8 year old girls this Fall has been humbling. I find myself trying to balance the need to teach the difficult and technical skills of soccer – controlling the ball with your feet and other parts of your body, passing to a teammate, receiving a pass from a teammate, shooting – with the need to teach basic game sense and understanding of strategy. My co-coaches and I have tried to structure practices so the children are touching the ball all the time, not standing around in lines, and thus they are focusing on moving and developing a feel for the ball. We have also tried to provide some basic understanding of the game so that when we get on the field, they are not just chasing the ball. While the former has been successful – the girls are touching the ball a lot in practice – the latter has been harder. We have been the masters of the swarm much of the season, although there have been moments of passing and spacing these past few weeks that provide hope.
For context, soccer was my favorite sport growing up, and I remain a passionate fan of professional soccer. I also coached older players – high school junior varsity and varsity soccer teams – for a number of years earlier in my career. To be clear, no one is going to invite me to coach a top soccer team anytime soon, and yet I probably know more than your average AYSO soccer coach.
Coaching this team has reminded me of a few important lessons that apply to parenting and school.
First, controlling children is not the same as teaching children. Soccer is complex and fluid, and it is not possible to create a script and simply direct children around the field. I can yell to the girls to get to the middle, and yet so many things can make that difficult, from the challenge of controlling the ball to the abstract nature of the flow of the game. The fundamental beauty of soccer to me is that it is a player’s game, not a coach’s game. Just like in parenting our children, we ultimately need to sit back and let them control their own game.
Which leads to the second lesson – I need to understand the children I have in front of me and meet them where they are. A quick review of the Yardsticks developmental continuum that we often share with parents reminds me that 7 and 8 year olds can “Listen well but may not always remember what they’ve heard,” and that they “may give up when things are hard.” It also notes, that they are “full of energy, play hard, work quickly, and tire easily.” Wondering about the different shapes and sizes of children out there? Well, not surprisingly, they “may have a growth spurt.” Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they have a “limited attention span, and short exercise breaks help concentration.” I’m no longer coaching high school varsity players, nor do I necessarily want to be – but that’s a column for a different day.
Which leads to the final lesson – I should not be measuring success by whether we win or lose the game. I will admit that I am competitive (probably more competitive than I sometimes want to admit) and there have been moments where I’ve been enthusiastically directing the girls on the field and getting pulled into the competitive nature of the moment. “Go, go, go,” I’m yelling from the sideline. And then I look over and see the three girls who are sitting on the sideline with me doing cartwheels. Perspective is important.
Next week, two excellent speakers will be visiting the area as part of the Common Ground speaker series – Richard Weissbroud and Frank Bruni. Both have written interesting books, Weissbroud’s book The Parents We Mean To Be focused on parenting and children’s moral and emotional development, while Bruni’s book Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be challenges students and parents to rethink how they view the college experience. The two will be delivering separate talks – Weissbroud at Nueva on Tuesday, November 15 and Bruni at Bellarmine on Wednesday, November 16. In addition, the two will be part of a joint discussion, moderated by Denise Clark Pope, on Tuesday, November 15 at Menlo School. For those who don’t know, Denise Clark Pope is impressive in her own right, as the author of Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students and the founder of Challenge Success, a nonprofit that challenges parents and schools to redefine the meaning of success.
While Weissbroud and Bruni are not talking about soccer, the lessons that I have been reminded of in coaching 7 and 8 year-old girls are not too dissimilar from the lessons they are exploring, albeit in the context of older children. For those who are new to the Hillbrook community, we were one of the founding schools of Common Ground more than 10 years ago and the group continues to bring extraordinary speakers to help all of us – parents, teachers, and coaches – work with our students and children.
A final note about the team. A few weeks back, I found myself at 8:15 am on a Saturday morning with ten eager girls dressed and ready to play an 8:30 am soccer game. The only problem? The other team wasn’t there. The rainy weather had created confusion about whether or not we could use the field and thus the other team did not show. Our team’s other coach and I talked and then we talked with a few other parents. What should we do? “The parents should play the kids,” one child said enthusiastically. We looked at each other, shrugged, and said, “Why not?” One hour later, a number of us collapsed on the sideline, big smiles on our faces, as we completed perhaps the best sixty minutes of the season. A parent smiled at me and said, “You know what? This is what they are going to remember.”