The notification comes as you’re walking out of the hair salon: “Alyssa came home from school with strep.” Immediately, your mind snaps away from the glorious feel of your new cut-n-style to the reality of that night’s soccer game. OK…, you think. That brings us down to 6. We can do 5+1 with no subs. Rough, but doable. Thankfully, it’s not a terribly hot day.
It’s 5:45 and you arrive at the fields for warm-ups and drills before the game. You’re walking to the field when you’re intercepted by another player’s older brother, a baseballer. He informs you that his younger sister had come for the game but got sick and went home. Now the cuss words start flipping through your mind. The absolute minimum you can have and still play is five, and that’s what you’re looking at. And they’re going to have to play the entire game, no subs, no choice.
Your coaching assistant has let you know she’s pushing it to get there and she’ll have to leave early. She’s not happy about it, but it’s outside of both your controls and your older daughter is happy to stand in as assistant – not that you really need one. She says, “I don’t know what to do as assistant,” to which you flippantly reply, “Help if someone gets hurt, cheer, and make sure I don’t cuss. Loudly.” Then the ref shows up, and you’re beginning to wonder if you’ll make it through this game without drawing a card. He’s young, inexperienced, and has more desire than skill.
You confer with the other team’s coach and ask if he’s willing to go 4+1 or if you should reschedule. Since everyone is out there already, you decide to go ahead and play. The game goes well. It’s not a total shut-out. Your five players are incredible, and you switch them around between goalie, offense, and defense in order to give your hardest runners a bit of a respite. By the fourth quarter, they’re dragging, you know they’re dragging, and it breaks your heart to have to run them this hard. They’re strong of spirit, though, and they keep pounding through.
The sweetness of the ball in the goal
At one point during the game, your spouse side-line coaches your daughter to “cover 9,” referring to a player on the other team. She’s in front of said player and can’t read her number on the back of her jersey. You know her as the other coach’s daughter and a former teammate of your child’s from last season, so you call her by name. Your daughter sees the other girl and starts chatting her up. Oy… Like defending on a corner kick is the optimal time to catch up with old teammates. Then again, distraction is an excellent defensive strategy.
The ref is as frustrating as ever, though he has improved some. Beside you, your teen daughter keeps asking, “Can I cuss, yet?” “No,” you respond. So she just mutters, “Period. Period. Period” over and over. It’s her G-rated version of “bloody hell”; you just let it go. Your team takes hits; one of your goalies takes a ball to the face with enough force to make him cry. Leather slamming against chilled skin is enough to make anyone cry. Your daughter’s arm gets cleated accidentally by a teammate. You want to throttle the ref for calling tripping on one of your players (coincidentally, your child) when the player had tripped over his own feet – a particular skill he practices much throughout the game. From that point on, it’s like this much bigger boy has it in for your daughter. You grit your teeth, but amidst the irritation is the reality that this is soccer (a very physical game), and that he must feel threatened by your little soccer diva, so a vein of pride creeps through, because, hey, she’s good. By the time the game ends, your older daughter says, “If you won’t email the president about how bad he is, I will!”
The game ends, and by the time the last whistle sounds, you’re pretty sure that, if there were superlatives given to coaches, you’d win “Most Likely to Draw a Red Card.” But once more, you’ve successfully filtered; successfully held on to your temper; and poured out some serious pride on your tired, battered, happy team.
Your team is scheduled for a game for the next day. Your daughter takes an herbal bath and sleeps hard through the night. The day dawns grey, and this is the first time you’ve ever wished for a rain-out. Your team gathers before the game and runs through a few drills before lining up for the ref’s check. You’re delighted to see that it’s another young ref, but one who does a good job. You’re still at 4+1 fielding with no subs, though the little girl who’d gotten sick the evening before is feeling better, per a text from her mom. You have no idea how this is going to go. Your team is still recovering from the night before; thankfully, there’s another cool day for them.
You take the field. Earlier in the week, you’d been at the fields working with one little girl, and this led to a half-field pick-up game in which other girls joined you. One of them is on the team you’re playing today, and she gives you a big smile. She’d been a sweet, shy flower when you first met, but she’s a fierce little dynamo on the field. Dang, little soccer divas are cute!
The game begins, and your team gives it its all. You make an allusion to Star Wars to your assistant; she comes back with Harry Potter. Laughing, you comment about what geeks you are. Your team draws first blood, and their team quickly brings it to a tie. It’s an awesome game! The ref misses a few calls, but it’s little stuff and balanced. You notice one of the other team’s players is delivering some high kicks, and about the third time he nearly takes off a player’s head without the ref calling it, you bring him to the ref’s attention – very discreetly. You, again, swap players between offense, defense, and the box, doing everything you can to maximize their strengths while giving them slower playing zones in which to rest.
Your daughter is hustling, and she and a little boy on the team have developed this super-sweet combo; they move like they’ve been playing soccer together forever, and they intuitively work together extremely well. You haven’t spoken to his mom, yet, but you really, really hope he stays with soccer and will be on your team again next season – and every season until the two age out. All throughout the game, they set up combos which lead to some goals. You work an offensive strategy you pulled out of your butt at the previous week’s game – which worked beautifully – and you hear a parent from the other team say, “Good hustle, number 5!” The thing is, the other team doesn’t have their #5 on the field; she was complementing your #5. Do I even need to mention that this is your child? Soccer is family.
The other team has a player who’s a few years older than any of the other kids. A slightly built boy, he is on the autism spectrum with minimal soccer skills. But he’s happy to be out there, and he just loves to play. The other coach has him on defense, and you’re proud of and happy for him when he gets his foot on the ball and breaks up some plays; he’s improved. If he gets the opportunity to drive the ball and go for the goal, your offense will become a little bit slow, your defense will soften, and your goalie will just miss nipping the ball. You see, giving this boy the opportunity to score will be well worth whatever your team has to sacrifice for that point. In debriefing after the game, you’ll have the opportunity to impress upon these 6- and 7-year-olds about kindness and compassion, and the all-important lesson that the point is to have fun. It is, after all, simply rec league soccer.
It’s somewhere in the second quarter. One of your players obviously hasn’t recovered from the previous night and is barely moving. She finally engages, breaks up a play, then gives a little roar of “Girl power!” It’s delightful!
Third quarter comes. The teams swap points back and forth. You’ve identified the other team’s weak points and coach your players to exploit those without shame. Your daughter has the ball and is driving to the goal. She kicks, and as soon as the ball leaves her foot, the referee blows the whistle, signaling the end of the quarter. The ball is technically still alive, and it sails past the goalie into the net. You’re whooping and hollering with joy and pride, because it’s her first goal of the season, and it was perfectly executed. She’s beaming, too, and you pick her up for a little proud-parent spin.
Fourth quarter… The score is once more tied, this time at 5-all. The other team is driving towards the goal, delivers a strong kick, and your defender’s head gets in the way of the ball before it goes out of bounds. Your player is still standing, but the ref is on it and stops play while your assistant and you do a quick neurological check. You don’t like that the ref gives the other team the throw-in since your player was the one getting hurt, but you concede that it’s a fair call. Reluctantly. Your team regains possession of the ball and scores one last time, bringing the score to 6-5 and giving your team the win – their first win of the season.
You’re yelling with your team, you’re giving out hugs and high fives and cheering. A part of you will worry later that you were maybe celebrating too much, that you perhaps were being a bad sport, but truth is, in those brief moments, the other team doesn’t even exist for you. This isn’t a celebration that they lost; this is a celebration of pulling out a win under the most unlikely circumstances, against seemingly unbeatable odds, at the end of a really good game against a strong opponent. It takes an incredible team to have played like they did, but it takes an extraordinary team to pull off such a win.
You take a moment to thank the ref for the good job he did as you line up for the handshake. You are facing the shy-flower-turned-soccer-diva, smiling at each other as you begin the walk. Then the rest of the celebration happens. You congratulate your team on a job well done, and secretly you think to yourself that you’ll have two players back the next game if all goes as planned. Yet, if you’ve learned nothing else this season, it’s that not everything goes as planned. One of your players could only cheer from the sidelines for this game, but she comes over to join in the celebration. You hug her, welcome her back, and tell her she was a part of this win. You remind them of the next practice and, as it’s the day before Mother’s Day, you tell them to ask their dads to help them wash their uniforms. Jahaziel, a sweet Hispanic boy and one of your goalies, tells you he already knows how to do his laundry. He’ll make someone a good husband one day, and your esteem of his parents ratchets up another notch. You drop the word about an end-of-season party to the kids, and you’ll work out the planning with the parents in the coming week. You take a few to talk to Jacob’s parents, advising them on a plan of care in case he’s suffered a mild concussion; it involves Tylenol for headache, ER if he starts throwing up, and keeping him awake for at least four hours.
Now it’s time for your other daughter’s game. You take your place on the bleachers and prepare to watch. As you catch the end of their drills, you wonder why the coach takes so much time doing goal-kicking drills when only a third of the team will ever be in the position to drive for the goal, anyway. Sure, it gives the goalie practice, but this team needs more passing work. You’ve noticed their sense of “team” has eroded some since early in the season, and their heavy-footed kickers are more likely to score field goals through the uprights behind the net than points in the goal box. Unfortunately, despite many pleas and petitions to the league’s management and the refs, they won’t let the teams nab a quick three points when that happens.
Oh, now this is interesting. Both of the refs from your games are on the opposing team, and they’re excellent players. Your daughter’s a defender, and you wonder if she’s caught on to the fact that the ref who’d irritated her so badly the night before is a striker on the other team. You know that, if she can just break up one of his drives, she’ll feel like the universe has been realigned and all will be right. Sadly, it doesn’t happen, just from lack of opportunity. And miracle of miracles, you see that the frustrating ref actually can follow a ball. You hear a comment that your team gave it more in their game than your older daughter’s team of teens did in theirs, and you can’t help but agree. The ref in your second game is goalie in this one, and even though it’s his first season reffing, you think he does a better job than these more experienced refs – and there are three at this level. Although your daughter plays well, a win isn’t to be for them this week. It’s time to go home.
In the midst of your time at the fields, you’ve dealt with the administrative aspects of coaching, texted the moms of the sick kids to find out how they’re doing, done all the in-game-coaching things, and loved up on your team. You’ve cheered your other daughter’s team throughout their game and looked over to see your younger daughter playing in a pick-up game involving players from three levels. You’ve chatted up another team parent; she’ll be on the opposite side next week. You’ve felt anger at the bad ref anew when you found out he let play continue in the day’s first game, despite a downed, crying player. You took a few to talk to one of your friends – an opposing coach. And you’ve talked to former players and former team parents, because soccer is family.
Then Mother’s Day dawns. Actually, it’d dawned two hours ago, but you’d woken up in the wee dark hours of the morning thinking about your amazing team and gone back to sleep. Two texts await you, one from your coaching assistant, the other from another player’s mom, both wishing you a Happy Mother’s Day. The player who’d taken the ball to the face is fine, the one who’d taken a ball to the head has a slight headache, but nothing worse. You reply to their texts, returning the wishes, and then post such wishes to the whole team. This is the first time this has ever happened to you. This year, more than any other, you truly feel that soccer is family. Or, to put it more alliteratively, football is family.