Picture this…a sunny, perfectly awesome 65 degree day in April of this year. I am sitting at the kitchen table, helping my wife make edits to her manuscript on her 9th book. As an English major and former military officer, I can handle this kind of thing. It was easy. And the “The Email” appeared in my mailbox.
“We’re putting teams together for spring soccer and find ourselves short of a few head coaches in our 3rd and 4th grade division. If you signed up to be an assistant coach, would you consider a promotion to head coach? Or if you’re a parent wanting to make sure your kids get the best soccer experience possible, how about giving coaching a try/”
I stopped breathing for a second. My youngest was in third grade and requested to play this spring season. She had never played before but was wanting to try it. I stalled until almost the last minute to sign her up and as I was doing that, her older brother said “Hey, I wanna play too.” My oldest had played way back in the day, like 15 years ago, but he hated it. So I gave up on ever having a soccer player in the family. I had dreams of eventually coaching them as I had played myself and loved it, but deployments and regular work were always in the way.
While signing them up, I noticed that you could volunteer to be a coach or assistant coach. Damn. I sat with that for a few minutes before clicking submit, but I decided against it. “Maybe next season…”
But now there was this email, this plea for help for the very thing I think I might want to do. I asked my wife. She hesitated because she HATES to discourage me. “But what about everything you do? What if it’s too hard to get to practice and games? What if you don’t feel…right?” Our eyes met and I remembered all the times I was too scared to leave the house or had to go home early, or hid in the car until the panic stopped. All the damn crying and heart racing and…stuff.
“If I have to be somewhere, I can be there. If they need me, I can make it.” I decided to ask a few questions before I agreed to it. The whole league seemed very recreational, which was ideal. The kids were old to just be trying it out, but the right recreational league wouldn’t care. I got a fast response, “Games are only on Saturdays and practice is one night a week, for one hour.”
Perfect. I told my wife I wanted to do it and I could make it work. In one week there would be a coach’s meeting and a clinic to learn how to be a coach. But I didn’t care about the clinic. I know how to play soccer and these are slightly older kids. I can do this.
The following Monday I drove to the meeting, nervous as hell. What if they laugh at me? What if they all look like Olympic level athletes? What if this is the dumbest thing I’ve ever done? As I walked up to the building, I saw a bunch of dad bods with beards. Yes, I can definitely do this. A bunch of them didn’t seem to even know the basic rules during the meeting. I met the age division coordinator, who thanked me for agreeing to coach a team. He was great. I was hyper and nervous (bad combination for me) so I told him all about how I missed the opportunity to coach my oldest for the two seasons he tried it out and how I was grateful for the opportunity. He was kind and handed me my bag of soccer balls and folder with team information.
I had a team of 12…10 boys, two girls. This would be fun! The meeting was quick and I signed up for practice on Mondays at 5. I drove home feeling elated but as the week went on, I started to feel nervous inside. What if the parents didn’t want their kid on my team? What if I was wrong and I couldn’t do this? It took me all the way until Friday to email my team and let them know when practice was. I was scared that maybe this was going to be too hard.
Nature stepped in and I had to cancel my first Monday practice because of weather. I was able to add a practice on Friday and I got to the field 20 minutes before practice. One family was there with two brothers who would be on my team. The dad introduced them and they were good kids. Slowly, the other kids trickled onto the field until I had all of them. Most of them knew each other. It was pure chaos and noise. I was 100% sure I made a HUGE mistake and this was going to be another epic failure to add to my list. I tried so hard to be this awesome adult coach who could lead my team to victory. I asked them to come up with some names for our team. They had a million and one ideas, but one stood out to me. The Ninja Monkeys. I told them I would choose from the list the next morning at our first game. Then the hour was up and they all ran to their parents. I survived.
The following day I let them know that we were indeed the Ninja Monkeys. They ran on to the field in the positions I put them in, mostly where they had requested to play. My jaw hit the ground when I saw how good some of them were. No way. These kids were great. Well, some of them. Most were fairly average. My goalies were solid too. We won, 4-0!! I was insanely proud of my Ninja Monkeys.
I set up a plan for practice the following Monday and I think I had to move that practice to Friday also. But again, practice was chaotic. I ordered a whistle so that I could stop yelling. I started allowing myself to just be the most hyper version of me. I didn’t have to hold myself together for these kids. I just needed to explain soccer to them, alternate learning/listening activities between active drills, and appeal to their natural hyperness as 8-9 year olds! It was a winning pattern. We won about half of our games, but played our hearts out. They let me try them in new positions and never gave up. The one kid with the biggest attitude problem did a 180 and became a solid player who gave it his all and just had fun. They learned a lot about the game and supported each other when things didn’t go well. I had another player with a lot of anxiety and several players tried really hard to cheer him up and help him see that he was being a good teammate and he could play well. I saw the very best those kids had to offer.
My PTSD incidents dropped. I started new medicine for nightmares around the same time and I was sleeping great because I was so busy preparing game rosters, practice drills, and how to move them around to make the team better. I had fewer and fewer panic attacks as well. I was less scared overall. I was a little insecure at times, standing over at the sideline alone with my team, but when I was with them all, I felt confident in myself and in my team.
The last practice, one of them complained that we weren’t doing any special last practice things. So I had them grab their parents and siblings and we played a tag game that we always warmed up with. The players loved it. Their families loved it. I laughed the whole time. And after practice, I realized that it had been special to all of us when one player’s dad asked if I was planning to coach fall soccer so he could request me for his son again.
“You bet. I’ll be coaching as long as my daughter wants to play.”
You see, his son had been trying to stand out. He wanted to try goalie but was scared. I let him try it in practice and in a game. He decided he didn’t like it. One game he begged me to put him on offense so he could score his first goal. I fist bumped him, put him in, and told him to go get that goal. And he did. I watched his confidence as a player and a person increase. He was a new kid by the end of the season. And I would be honored to coach him again.
Signups were during the month of July for fall soccer. The coach’s meeting is next Monday. I want my team back. I requested them on my volunteer sheet. I know that at least one, maybe two probably won’t be back with this league. Another aged out of this division. But the others…I”m just waiting to get my roster this weekend and I am hoping it’s full of Ninja Monkeys.