Say goodbye to Mondays. Twelve girls have signed up, the assistant coach has committed to another season, and I can’t actually say no. I will again wake up an hour early on Mondays, go to work early, and leave early to coach my daughter’s soccer team of 6- and 7-year-old girls, the Marauders—though this year we might change our name to something not so bellicose, a little less burn-your-house-and-ravage-your-land.
Do you know what it’s like to be in charge of small children but not really in charge? You say shhh, and they begin screaming? You pull them off a wobbly bookcase as they attempt to scale it, but then they run to the kitchen to play with steak knives?
A friend told me a story recently. She’d asked her sister, a mother of two, what she and the kids were up to that afternoon. “Well,” said the sister, “we went outside and began to play in the new driveway. But instead of playing with the ball, the girls ate loose pieces of the fresh blacktop, and I tried to stop them.” As a parent and now as a coach I’ve had my share of the-kids-are-eating-blacktop moments.
I knew I was overmatched about 30 seconds into our first practice last year. We began by gathering around in a circle and saying our names. The first girl said, “Hi, I’m Melinda.” The next said, “Hi, I’m Roseanne.” And the third said, “Hi, I’m sarcastic.”
Sarcastic was a beautiful little girl with a funny, shrill laugh who, if I left her in the game a second too long, simply lay down on the soccer field and began to rest, no matter what was going on around her. During a practice, after I had made yet another attempt to redirect her energy away from wisecracking and toward the actual playing of soccer, one of her friends, Jill, a 5-year-old, turned to me and said, “She really annoys you, doesn’t she?”
“What are you talking about, Jill?” I replied, all poker face. “I love playing soccer with Sarcastic.”
“It’s okay,” Jill said, “you can tell me.”
“Jill,” I said, “this is a totally inappropriate conversation.”
“I was just joking,” said Jill, and then a half-second later, “but she does annoy you, right?”
The people who run the league all emphasize the importance of teaching young players that soccer is fun. My girls don’t need to be won over. When I start talking about the fundamentals of dribbling and passing and how to make a corner kick, I get maybe 10 seconds of grudging silence and then it’s, “Can we play now, Coach?”
Except for Sarcastic, my girls seem to have an inborn hunger to play soccer, and to play it better than anyone else. When they hit the field they become voracious little warrior-princesses.
In our league we don’t officially keep score. But the girls do. And, actually, the coaches need to keep track as well, because if their team is more than five points ahead, they are supposed to bench their highest-scoring player. Nothing more effectively alienates me from my players than this rule, because in their minds the only thing more inviting than the prospect of winning by 20 points is the prospect of winning by 30 points.
It’s happened a few times that I’ve pulled my highest scorer only to watch my next highest scorer step up and begin scoring just as many goals, too many to continue playing; and then, once I’ve put my second highest scorer on the bench, I watch as the little girl who was originally the third highest scorer, in turn, also scores at will—but her I can’t put on the bench because I have no more subs.
The highlight of every practice is a scrimmage, though arguments break out whenever a ball goes out of bounds. I need to keep two lists in my head, one for the blue team and one for the red, keeping track of who has had a chance to kick the ball inbounds and who has not. Because the girls fight over everything that’s up for grabs.
The worst part of practice is a game the girls call “Get Coach.” This is not one of my dribbling or set-kicking drills. Get Coach is a game the girls made up, and I only have to say, “We are not playing Get Coach,” for a game of Get Coach to begin.
The game’s object is to catch me, jump on me, push me to the ground, and then pinch, squeeze, and grab at me until the parents come off the sidelines, mortified, and begin peeling these little women off my tired person. To look at the faces on these parents, you’d think their kids were eating blacktop.