I’m not a good youth soccer coach.
No, you can’t judge things solely by results, especially in recreational soccer. My horrendously bad luck has carried over to games involving my family in which I have not coached. I’ve started to wonder if I defaced the FA Cup in a previous lifetime.
This season, in which I demoted myself to assistant coach, I’ve missed three games. Our team won all three of those, leading by 5-6 goals in each one. In the four games I’ve attended, we had one blowout win, two ties and a loss. My team is joking that I might want to skip the league championship game.
I’ve always made an effort to be positive. I’ve coached players who’ve gone on to make high-level travel teams or their high school teams, and they always ask me how my current team is doing. Parents and kids have thanked me for my efforts to give them a positive experience.
But it’s an effort. Much more than it should be. And the problem is simple ...
I just don’t have the requisite level of Zen.
If you follow me on Twitter, you probably know that. I don’t have Alexi Lalas’ calm demeanor as he deals with people who apparently think he’s some random guy Fox picked up on the street, not someone who played in a World Cup and in Serie A. I’m better at argument avoidance than I used to be, but I still resemble the old cartoon with the guy who can’t go to sleep because someone is wrong on the Internet.
With the kids I coach, the good certainly outweighs the bad. I’ve rarely had trouble with parents, even when I’ve had to give a kid a lecture about such practice ills as kicking a teammate’s ball onto a neighboring field, hanging from the crossbar, making me explain an exercise three times because they’re chatting, etc.
The trouble I have is with myself.
I tie myself in knots. I try to design practice plans to fit the old E license or the new grassroots license or whatever U.S. Soccer wants us to do these days. I make absolutely sure every kid gets the proper amount of playing time, to the point at which I think I should be getting a commission from the fine folks who developed the Coach’s Clock app. (I’m guessing they’re Seattle Sounders fans, given the names they use on their demo.)
Then when my team loses, I second-guess everything. What else could I be doing in training? Should I have made that one really good defender play defense instead of acceding to his wish to play striker? Should I try a different formation? Did I do too much joystick coaching? Or too little? It’s U-14 rec league, where the number of players who’ll go on to high-level soccer is dwindling, so should I just give in and start playing direct?
In the fall, I coached a talented All-Star team. We lost our first three mini-games, two of them by narrow margins. I went to a fast-food place with a pen and paper to sketch out possible formations, and I wound up just holding my head in my hands, wondering if I had done something wrong.
This season, after handling two teams and that All-Star team in the fall, I insisted upon serving only as an assistant coach for one team. I was assigned to a head coach who had just moved here from Kyrgyzstan, and I’ve taken on a lot of the organizational duties that are new to him.
He has the attitude I wish I had. Chatty kids, mistakes, refusal to follow directions -- he just shrugs it off and smiles. He laughs along with the players with each good or bad touch on the ball. The word he most often yells from the bench is “Good!’ with a clipped accent that shortens the vowel sound and exaggerates the final consonant, as if saying “Gut!”
He doesn’t spend a lot of time working up E license-approved practice plans with a small-sided activity and expanded small-sided activity and all the stuff that takes up space in my brain that could be used for other things. We’re winging it. And we scrimmage a lot.
And still, I’m too stressed to enjoy it. In a typical season, I fret until my team wins its first game, not wanting to repeat the winless seasons I’ve endured in the past. This season, as my team contended for a spot in the playoff final (which they eventually earned), I’m fretting about wasting the opportunity. I can’t seem to just enjoy the fact that this team plays not just with skill but with unbridled joy.
I also found myself playing the “bad cop” on occasion, a sea change from some other seasons in which my assistant was the taskmaster. I gave a fiery halftime speech when the team fell behind 4-1 to a team they should’ve been beating. Maybe it worked -- they tied 4-4 -- but I hated myself for it.
I still have a good handle on some things not to do as a coach. I’m bewildered when I see “professional” coaches who make every decision for their players from the sidelines and wonder why their players aren’t learning anything. I shake my head when I see a coach playing longball and bunkering so his team’s parents are mollified with a shiny U-10 trophy.
But that doesn’t make me a good coach. I’m basically a coaching Simon Cowell -- not a singer but someone who knows a screechy, out-of-tune voice when I hear one. Or maybe someone who goes to a restaurant knowing I don’t have the culinary skills of the chef but can still discern the fact that “beef cheeks” are inedible.
So I’m firing myself. I’m handing over my dozens of cones and pinnies to someone else. My final game on the sideline was on a beautiful June day. I was determined to enjoy it regardless of outcome. Of course, it didn't work out that way, and I was nervously second-guessing myself all the way to the final whistle, even though we wound up winning the league championship by three goals.
And I’m focusing on my new -- and paid -- contribution to the sport. I’m a ref. It works well because study and practice make perfect.
Besides, I have the temperament to deal with high-strung coaches. Like me.
(Beau Dure is the author of “Single-Digit Soccer: Keeping Sanity in the Earliest Ages of the Beautiful Game” and the host of the podcast “Ranting Soccer Dad.” He coaches and refs youth soccer in Northern Virginia.)