Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Man in the Middle

Besides coaching soccer, I now referee a handful or two of youth games each season. My wife doesn't understand why, but I actually enjoy this aspect of the sport. Having played soccer all of my life--and having coached for much of my adult life--being in the center gives me a whole new perspective.

Even with the young ones, it's hard for me to keep up. My endurance is good, but I'm not very fast any more. Actually, even on my best days I never was very fast. Luckily, I can choose to call the small-side games instead of the ones on the full field most of the time. The three-referee system utilized for most games also minimizes the amount of running I have to do since I can rely on assistants to help call the sidelines and offsides.

This isn't actually me...
Today's game was played on a beautiful Bermuda grass field. Softer and flatter than any field I was ever lucky enough to enjoy as a player, the pace of the game was nearly perfect. It was a fairly high-level travel game so many of the players had gifts that I only dreamed of when I was young. I witnessed plays of remarkable dexterity: girls running off the ball with clear intent and their teammates finding them in stride; brilliant first touches; precise positioning; powerful and accurate shooting.

Early on, the ball went out of bounds last touched by the home team resulting in a throw-in for the visitors. A player--clearly not agreeing with my call--picked the ball up and whipped it off the field so it had to be chased down by a coach. Another time, I whistled a foul in front of the home team goal, and the same player loudly called out, "are you ever going to call anything against the other team?"

Both of these things happened in the first fifteen minutes of the match. The out of bounds call had virtually no bearing on the outcome and the foul was one of only two or three calls I had made in the whole game up to that point, so there wasn't much history to back up a claim that I was leaning one way or the other too precipitously.

Oh, and the player was a girl all of eleven years old.

There could be a lot of reasons why she behaved that way. She could just have been having an off day or wasn't feeling well. I don't know. What I worry about, though, is that a player so young has had examples set for her that suggest this is the way athletes and sports men and women act. If I had to bet, I'd say that was true. I wish it wasn't.

On the other hand--and lest you think that I'm just another person lamenting poor athletic behavior in youth sports--here's the really good news: in all of the games I've done this was one of a very few examples of anything less than grace and good behavior that I have witnessed. I believe that many people see outbursts like this one and categorically assume that it is the norm rather than the exception. My experience has repeatedly proven otherwise.

On this day, every other player I interacted with was having a blast, playing hard, testing the limits of the rules yet playing within them, and above all else competing as intensely as they could. They had the physical gifts and passion that make this such a beautiful game to play, to watch, to coach, and, yes, to referee. To be the man in the middle was an honor and a privilege, and I would do it tomorrow if I wasn't so tired...

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

We Did It, Coach

You can’t really say that this was a rivalry game because the teams had never met before. Between the two rosters are lots of connections from school, from recreational teams, and all stars, and tryouts. To finally meet on the field, though, they had to travel about ninety minutes away and get a lucky draw in a big tournament.

Our opponent was a well-known and respected one from just around the corner. Playing in more competitive leagues than we had for several seasons, their reputation was excellent and deserved. Ours was good, but not as good and certainly not as visible. We hadn’t yet proven we could play at the same level.

Even with the distinct advantage we had in goal, it would take everything the girls had to win this one. Our keeper has played with us for six seasons, and the other team had to use several willing, but less experienced players to fill that role. That could mean a really big opportunity for us.

But, momentum was clearly on the other side in the first half. Our opponent put lots of pressure on our goal while we sent very few tests their way. They controlled the game at midfield while we fought relatively unsuccessfully to push the ball into their end. Their skills and speed were simply better than ours. They scored, and we didn’t. 1-0, at halftime.

At the break I told the girls that they had proven only that they were not yet as good as the other team. That’s what everyone watching probably expected and thought. So no big deal, right?

Then I asked my team if they wanted to try to change that conclusion. I knew they were capable, but they had to believe it themselves and the only time to do that would be when they stepped back on the field.

For the next thirty minutes there was no quit. No won’t. No can’t. No try.

Only do.

And it was a thing of beauty. They won balls they had been losing. They increased pressure everywhere. They were just a half step faster than they were before halftime--which was still a half step slower than some of their speedier opponents. But it was enough, and gradually the tide turned.

Some might look at the final score, 3-1, and say that we won easily. Some might say that this win was not significant because the other team was at a disadvantage. Whatever anyone else wants to say is okay with me because I know something special happened. I know different.

At game end, when I walked on to the field to greet my tired, but satisfied team, I saw Steph’s face and Holly’s face and Anna’s face. The look on each was the same and, well, athletic and mature. No longer a child-like countenance, but a competitor’s stare. Too exhausted to smile, they looked me right in the eye as if to say, “we did it, Coach.” And then we slapped hands and bumped fists. No words exchanged.

That was the winning moment, They didn’t overly celebrate, but they were happy. They didn’t strut or show off, but they walked with confidence and poise. They went through the traditional post-game line and shook hands with each of the opposing players and coaches. “Good game,” they said. And they meant it. All the way around.

“We did it, Coach.” Sounds about right.