Realizing the splendor of soccer amid the pain of defeat

We outshot our state tournament semifinal opponent 17-3. We had nine corner kicks; they had one. But the only statistic that counts is this: Farmington High School 1, Staples High 0.

In the aftermath of the season-ending, crushing defeat, a player turned to me – his coach – and said, “I can’t believe how bad this feels. But I’m graduating. How can you go through this every year?”

He was right. If your team is any good at all, you’ll qualify for a postseason tournament. And unless you’re really, really good – and of course really, really lucky – odds are astronomical you’ll end your season with a loss.

I had no answer for him. Even if I did, I could not have replied. It’s tough to talk through tears.

A soccer team is a special thing. It’s a group of a couple dozen very different individuals. Somehow, over the course of three months – if they and their coach are lucky – they mold themselves into one unit. Everything they do – their training, playing, meals, banter – they do as one.

A soccer team is organic. It evolves over time, taking on the shape and form of its disparate parts -- and becoming more than its sum. It almost lives and breathes on its own.

But a soccer team is ephemeral, too. It exists for one reason -- to grow, mature, fulfill its potential -- and then one day, it’s over. It either reaches its goal, or it doesn’t. Either way: poof! The final whistle blows. Players pile on top of each other in elation, or slump separately wherever they were, racked by defeat. Whatever the result, at that moment the organism begins to die. They’ll be together again -- at a banquet, to hand in uniforms, whatever -- but they’ve already ceased to be the team they were just moments earlier.

There is a similarity to every season. Here in Connecticut, where high school soccer has been a fall sport for nearly a century, we start tryouts in the blazing heat. We form our squads, then battle through the regular season while the leaves turn. Finally, just before Thanksgiving, those leaves have fallen. So has the temperature, and all but one team.

Yet every season is different. New challenges arise. New heroes emerge. New story lines are written. This year was particularly different from last. In 2020, as COVID ravaged the country, we played a truncated schedule, without spectators but with daily symptom checks. We held no pre-game pasta dinners, no post-tournament banquet. It was a sad shadow of a soccer season. Yet we all felt fortunate to have something.

In 2021, things were nearly back to normal. We picked up right where we left off in 2019. We had tryouts, and formed our squad. We set goals, then set out to meet them.

Last week, we fell one game short. We lacked -- literally -- one goal. We had a very good season, with 13 wins, 3 losses and 4 ties -- but we had nothing to show for it.

Nothing tangible, that is.

Of course, we had videos: proof that our players could pass, dribble and defend as well as anyone. We had photos of great goals and spectacular saves. We had so much emotion, so many memories. Some will fade; others will endure. It’s hard to explain to teenagers how important all of those are, so in the aftermath of our defeat I did not even try.

On the long bus ride home from our final match, I tried to sort out my own emotions. My heart was empty. I’m as competitive as my players, and falling short of a state title stung.

But my heart was also full. I’d shared three intense months with as talented, passionate, tight, loving and fun group as I’ve ever had. I’d shared a very fulfilling year with them, starting with a meeting at the end of last year’s pandemic-ravaged season. I’d shared nearly four years with our seniors. They’re a few months away from graduation, and though they are ready to head out, I’m still not ready to say goodbye.

Yet they always go. That’s one of the jobs of a high school coach. We do everything we can not only to prepare our players to compete on the field, but to be good, productive and honorable people off it.

Only one team claims the final trophy. All the rest end their season in defeat. Fortunately, the game of life can have more than one winner. Fortunately too, the game of soccer is great preparation for that.

I had no answer when my player asked, “How can you go through this every year?” At some point during that final bus ride home though, I realized what I should have said: “I do it for guys like you.”

Photos by Brian Watkins and Barry Guiduli

8 comments about "Realizing the splendor of soccer amid the pain of defeat".
  1. Kent James, November 25, 2021 at 1:36 a.m.

    Losing a game short of the state title?  First world problems (as they say).  Try coaching when you don't win a game all year.  When most scores are in double digits.  When you're hoping the other team won't score in the first 5 minutes.  When you barely have enough kids to field a team (which has a lot to do with the scorelines). When you're just trying to keep the program alive (getting kids to come out for a team that gets shellacked every week is no picnic either).  

    On the other had, I do appreciate your article.  As a player, I played on a team that lost in the state final (though we did not outplay them, it could have gone either way). So I think you've done well capturing the momentary (but strong) bonds of a soccer team during a season. But there are worse feelings that losing your final game in the playoffs. 

  2. frank schoon, November 25, 2021 at 10:11 a.m.

    Can't identify with this at all ,other then a short let down after the loss at that moment, feeling sad for my players' sadness. Then l immediately look back at what a great season we had. That night,  I look at the game in retrospect, playing it back in my mind and try to see what went wrong, what should have been better,  what I did wrong or missed and how to improve it. At this level I come away with the attitude,' You win some , you lose some".... And think of the tnext season.....

    The bottom line in all my years of coaching and developing is based on how good of a player will you be after leaving me and how the next team will benefit. That's my main objective, that the next coach will inquire and ask the player , 'where did you learn this ?', or who was coach that taught you this?. Or a parent asks another parent ,'who would you recommend to develop my kid into a better player, instead of 'how can I get my kid on this winning team'.

    That, to me , is more important and I could care less about winning some stupid cup.  The trophies that I obtained over the years rolled around in the back of my trunk, for I didn't want these dust collectors into my house and ended up in trash. I kept only a plaque for sentimental reason of a team that I coached for several years and who later I coached in high school...

  3. beautiful game replied, November 25, 2021 at 3:48 p.m.

    The ups and downs after each game are experiences that help build a young player's character for the future, on and off the pitch as Dan Woog expressed in his article.

  4. Mike Lynch, November 25, 2021 at 12:19 p.m.

    Dan, thanks for sharing. Yes, the journey is the reward. We form them as best we can on and off the field ... and then they move on as we trained them up to do! The real results come in 10,20,30 years, prayerfully succeeding in life, good family people, and still loving this great game, especially as coaches paying forward the next generation of soccer junkies!

  5. Ben Myers, November 25, 2021 at 12:47 p.m.

    This is a brilliant essay and I wish that all high school coaches would get the chance to read it. The high school soccer season is not just about soccer, but also about life going forward.  Ditto pay-to-play club soccer, where the coaches often do not get it.

    Our Bromfield School boys in Harvard MA won a state title again this year by 1-0 in overtime over Douglas HS.  Everything went right for the coach and boys.  Woog's essay encapsulates the feelings of the Douglas coach and players about a game played with similar stats, though far fewer shots on goal.

  6. Kevin Sims, November 25, 2021 at 5:16 p.m.

    Thanks, Dan. I can relate to all manner of seasons ... from your recent one to others alluded to by respondents. Coaching is about the journey and the myriad lessons and teachable moments therein, weaving life lessons into soccer lessons. "4 4 40" the mission for this HS coach: provide 4 years of experience to prepare all for the next 40 years. Emotional responses at the end of each season, from the thrill of victory to the agony of defeat, result from the passionate pursuit of excellence. Not all losses are created equal. Not all victories are created equal. All results are ripe for teachable moments and are rewarding as such. My typical "soccer season hangover & withdrawal" lasts a month.

  7. Ted Morehouse, November 26, 2021 at 12:49 p.m.

    I think it was well said.  Teachers feel the same way.  Anyone who leads and builds and then experienced loss.  Everything and everyone eventually moves on.  Until they don't. I'm glad the pasta dinners have returned. 

  8. Frank Kohlenstein, November 26, 2021 at 8:55 p.m.

    Dan, thanks for the essay and well said! It is like crashing off a cliff but when you give it more thought it is definitely not about a trophy.  The sadness is because of the worth of being on the team and you know this group will not be showing up for training or competition together again.  The realization of what was gained brings each of us are on fond memories in time and those last!

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