By Mike Woitalla
If there's a book about a youth soccer coach's experience as entertaining and insightful as what Dan Woog has produced, I'm unaware of it.
Woog has coached youth and high school soccer for more than 30 years. He’s also a journalist and author of several books, the latest of which -- “We Kick Balls: True Stories From The Youth Soccer Wars” -- is a collection of anecdotes that often delivers laugh-out-loud moments a la David Sedaris stories.
Woog is an NSCAA Youth Coach of the Year winner. Staples High School (Conn.) has won four league titles and a state crown since Woog became head coach in 2003. But this isn’t a how-to coaching book. No bragging about tactical prowess or indecipherable charts of Xs and Os. It’s about players – mainly teenagers – and a coach trying to make soccer a wonderful experience for them.
Clearly, Woog’s success as a coach comes from caring so much about his players, no matter what form they come in. The “archetypes” he describes include “The Loner,” “The Captain Without the Title,” “The Soccer Expert,” “The Perfectionist” and “The Bad Boy.” Some drive him crazy, but Woog appreciates and has affection for them all.
Of one, who managed to get lost in the Netherlands and almost ended up on a taxi to Germany, Woog writes:
“His interests ranged from astrophysics to Zen philosophy. With so much going on his mind, I suppose he had little time for such mundane ideas as what time it was, where he was supposed to be, or what he should do when he got there.”
Much of the book recounts Woog taking his teams on trips to Europe, Brazil and Australia. These accounts provide drama and humor -- but can also help prep coaches planning trips with teens because of the myriad challenges, transgressions and successes described.
“My teams do not have many rules,” writes Woog. “I believe the more things you tell a teenager not to do, the more often he’ll try to do them. Rules impose an authoritarian, us-against-them dynamic, the exact antitheses of what a good soccer team needs. And for every rule that is imposed, there must be consequences for breaking it. A coach with a lot of rules can spend so much time trying to enforce them that he has no time for a stroll around the piazza.
“But there must be some rules, and the ones we have we expect to be followed. One of the most important is punctuality. This teaches personal responsibility. It teaches team responsibility too, because everyone looks out for each other. Besides, I hate waiting.”
Woog describes how he balances discipline and affording freedom, and punishing transgressions (teammate fight, T-shirt theft, drinking, missed curfew, etc.).
While there are serious issues that Woog has had to contend with, on the lighter side is how he responded to a player's mooning prank in Denmark. After informed by the mooner's teammates, Woog confronted him with:
"'Jesus Christ! You mooned them? Do you know what you did? Do you have any idea what mooning means in Denmark? Do you know it’s just about the worst thing you can do in this culture? Do you know how offensive it is? Well do you?' ...
“Brett did not know. Neither did I – or anyone else in Denmark, for that matter. How could they? I made it all up, on the spot.”
Fortunately, Woog busted out in laughter before the boy broke down in tears.
Laughter, tears, frustration and celebration are all part of the book – as expected in an account of more than three decades of coaching.
And coaching for so long means that Woog has seen generations of players pass through his teams. Near the end of the book, he contemplates the satisfaction of seeing his former players succeed in life and the sadness of those who have struggled.
“I am glad for their achievements, but I do not congratulate myself for them. So why should I beat myself up over those few who have failed?
“I know all that is true. Yet it each time it happens I go back to my current team, and vow that our next session together will be the best we ever had.”
(“We Kick Balls: True Stories From The Youth Soccer Wars.” By Dan Woog 198 pages, 2012. Paperback $12.95; Kindle $9.95; E-Book $9.99.)