I was impressed by the turnout. There had to be at least a hundred parents jammed into the elementary school cafeteria on a rainy Sunday afternoon trying to get their kids signed up for soccer. No one even played soccer when I was growing up. We played football in the fall.
Not that I have anything against soccer, although, truth be told, I don’t really understand all of the rules. I’d been meaning to learn.
“We’re short one assistant coach for the 7-8-year olds,” said the league president, spying over the top of his bi-focals for volunteers.
I had a 7-8-year old. This could work out well from a scheduling standpoint. Up went my hand. “I’ll help coach them.”
Navy blue jerseys with gold letters and the players’ names and numbers on the back. I couldn’t help but feel that our squad was the fashion class of the league. Brody, Chloe, Jasmine, Layla, Liam, Madison, Noah, Riley, Savannah, Tyler, Zachary … Nary a Billy nor a Linda in sight. We were good too.
Youth soccer involves a process of evolution, the fully evolved team having grasped the concept that a “team” is at it’s most effective when it’s players play the “positions” to which they are assigned.
Demonstrations of this understanding are nowhere to be found on the field of the five- and six-year olds, all twenty-two of whom can be found in the immediate vicinity of the ball. It is a behavior that bears significant resemblance to the swarming of bees to the hive. Goals are occasionally scored when the ball trickles away and into the goal, unmolested by any defensive effort on the part of the goalkeeper, who generally has either joined the pack or wandered off to see a friend.
Things change radically at the level of the seven-eight year olds. By now the kids have begun to spread out. The big issue at this developmental stage is that of dominance, i.e., the athletic superiority of a relatively small group of kids over the rest.
The league makes every effort to insure that not too many of these uber-players are assigned to any one team, three per team being the norm. But it sometimes happens that Duncan has the flu one week, and Brianna has had to go to visit her grandparents in Cincinnati, leaving their team hopelessly undermanned.
Such was the case one week, when our Blue squad, with our full complement of superstars, took the field against the Duncan-less, Brianna-less, Kelly Greens.
Brianna and Duncan were not the only ones who were conspicuous by their absence that Sunday afternoon. Coach Barry, head honcho for we Blues, was away on business in Honk Kong; leaving co-coach Mike and me at the helm. “Don’t worry,” Mike assured me. Mike, who was an obstetrician by trade, had a very reassuring voice. “All you need to do is shout encouraging words to the kids and hand out the orange segments at half time. I already have a pretty good game plan.”
I’d guess there were about ten minutes ‘til face-off when Mike announced that he was leaving – some lame-brained excuse about a Mrs. Carlson and heavy labor.
As things were to turn out, I had no reason to be concerned. Six minutes into the game we were up 6-0, our team leaders each having scored two goals. The Kelly Greens were afraid to go near the ball. I called timeout.
“Brody, Jasmine, Liam. I want you to sit out for a while.” Groans of protest. I put my eleven weakest players out on the field. Let the other kids have some fun for a while.
But it was too late. Their spirit was broken. I was feeling kind of badly that I hadn’t thought to pull my all-stars sooner, when from the sidelines I heard it, loud and clear: the virulent cry of the asshole little league parent.
“Pull your fullbacks up, coach” he roared at me. “Pull your dam fullbacks up.”
Signaling once again for time, I made my way toward my detractor.
“I can’t do that,” I told him.
“I don’t know which ones the fullbacks are.”
Apparently he was not to be cajoled out of his dissatisfaction with my coaching performance. “Hunter,” he yelled out onto the field. “Grab your stuff. We’re outta here.”
To the sidelines streaked Hunter, breaking stride just long enough to call me something unflattering
I have since learned, and largely forgotten, the rules of soccer-- a game enjoyed so passionately by so many people on the planet that I figure it can survive without me.
I stayed on in coaching, though I did switch sports – to baseball, a game that I both love and understand thoroughly. Most of the kids are terrific; but there are always a few bad apples who – if you tune your ear to the grandstand – would seem not to have fallen very far from their trees. For a long time I had no use for this group. Now I write stories about them.