After five years, I am done coaching little kids. Starting last year, I detected a decreasing amount of patience with the kids; over time, seeing the same sort of mistakes over and over again tends to wear you down and it’s not fair to blame today’s kids for the mistakes that their predecessors were making four years ago. While I admire those endlessly patient sorts that can handle the Sisyphean task of witnessing the same absurdities over and over again for decades, I just can’t do it. The combination of a disappearing challenge – I know what works and how to win now – and my declining tolerance for inevitable mistakes means that it’s time to get out while I’m still effective. As every NFL fan knows, it’s not only athletes who come with sell-by dates.
It’s a good time, too, since we had a surprisingly good season this year. With only three older kids playing against as many as seven, we managed to finish sixth, fifth, and fifth in our last three tournaments, which was a spectacular result considering how badly we were overmatched in terms of age and size. In fact, we actually tied for second out of six and second out of five in our group the last two tournaments, but lost out on the semifinals both times thanks to goal difference.
We also had a huge surprise in that we actually found ourselves a keeper this year. We didn’t have one last year either, so in desperation I turned to the one of the three who was least useful on the field because he could punt the ball as far as his friend, our star player. He’s a bit of a dreamer, not very aggressive, and for the last two years he’s tended to go through the motions more than actually trying to win the ball or do anything useful with it when he’s got it. But his first time in the net, the tournament in which we finished sixth, he won the first two games for us before hurting a finger while making a save. Even though we lost the rest of our games once he went out, I didn’t begin to put two and two together until after the tournament, when a scout for Black, the pro squad to whom we’ve provided two very good players in the past, wanted to know if they could recruit him to join their program in the fall.
I thought the scout was nuts and didn’t think a whole lot more about it until last week’s tournament, when our new keeper only permitted two goals that were potentially saveable and racked up several very good saves and two clean sheets in our three wins. When the coach for Blue, the other big youth program, asked about his availability in the fall after our game against them, I realized that I probably should have tried the kid in goal a long time ago. Yesterday, we were significantly outgunned against some much larger clubs, but the boys still managed to win one game and tie another; that was enough to give us a shot at fifth place. That game, the last one at this level for the three oldest kids, finished 1-1 and went to penalty kicks, which worried me because two of their teammates can barely kick the ball.
Our first three shooters, all of whom I expected to score, each put their penalties away, as did the first three penalty-takers from the other team. Both goalies were diving like mad, but didn’t have a chance at any of them. The other team scored again, then the little kid who won’t run but has a nice strong foot kicked it right at their keeper. Blocked. I figured we were done, but then their next kid fired wide of the post to even it up. The next two both hit, which meant it was 4-4 and we were into sudden death. A defender in whom I had zero confidence actually caught the ball squarely for once, and our goalie nearly stopped their next one, but it went in anyhow. 5-5. I had no choice but to put up the other little one, a lefty who just stabs at the ball with his right foot and seldom touches it.
“You can use your left foot, use your left foot,” I told him, since he’s always being told to use his right foot during drills in practice. Thump! Perfect, curving shot, right in the right corner; their goalie never had a chance. 6-5. Our keeper came out and crouched down on the line, looking vaguely nervous but not scared. I thought he was positioned a little too far to the right, but I didn’t say anything since I didn’t want to break his concentration. The shot came in towards his left shoulder, he got both hands up, stepped left, and slapped it firmly away. Game over! A mad celebration ensued, as they’d not only won fifth place, but also claimed bragging rights since the other team was supposed to be the best one in the local area. I was very proud of them.
That was a very satisfying way to end my coaching experience with the little ones. I’ve been asked to manage a veteran’s team, which I may do someday but not yet. For the time being, I’m going to stick with my club and assist the coach at the next level, where I’ll be reunited with most of my old players and the mistakes will be new and different for a while. But when we lose to Black, as is usually the case, defeat won’t sting quite as much as it has in the past. And if their new goalie elects to rub it in, he just may find himself getting sent to bed early that night.