For a few seasons quite some years ago I coached a coed soccer team of ten to twelve year olds in the Washington, DC league called “Soccer on the Hill.” It was quite a fun experience, but it was also a lot of work. The kids varied in every way that I could imagine—race, gender, economic background, size, skill, work ethic, and coachability. There were children of Senators and bus drivers, competitive players and others who were easily distracted by butterflies.
I recall some particulars from that time.
First, I will always remember that I got to hold the practices on the national mall in the shadow of the United States Capitol. It was a beautiful environment. Even though I have now played hundreds of games of soccer, ultimate, softball, volleyball on those fields, I still find it lovely and awe-inspiring and amazing that anyone can play there.
Second, I remember with great gratitude one helpful parent (who had two sons on the team) who decided to attend almost all of the practices and made all the difference helping to provide the order and discipline for the team that was a struggle for me alone.
Third, I remember one tiny incident that I often think about with respect to modeling of behavior when you are in a position of leadership. I always biked to practice, and one day I met one of the kids on my team coming out of his house on my block. We biked to practice down Maryland Avenue, down Constitution Avenue, to the field on the Mall. The next practice, I met him again, this time with his father, and we three biked together. I remember the kid yelling enthusiastically to his dad “Let’s go down the curbs the Nathaniel way!” and bumping down from the sidewalk to the street as I apparently had the previous time. It had never occurred to me for an instant that he would be copying me, demonstrating it to his father, and labeling it “my way.”
But most of all, what I will remember from coaching that team is just how caught-up you can become in that role. One game sticks in my mind, a playoff game at the end of a surprisingly successful season. In it, my kids played their hearts out—played the best soccer they had ever played—and held a 2-1 lead against a significantly superior side into the final minutes. We were pressed continually—the other team got chance after chance, and we just barely stopped them. It seemed impossible to hold the lead. I was on the sideline, pacing, cheering, making strategic substitutions, rooting, completely involved. Our chief defensive player, a twelve-year-old boy, was almost single-handedly repelling the attacks, but the opponent was relentless and kept coming. Shots just missed our goal on numerous occasions. Then, with only about three minutes left, the other team tied the game up. It was heartbreaking. My kids were so disappointed. And then we gave up another goal, this one in the last few seconds, and lost outright. My team was surprised, I think, at how strongly I praised their play, but I was incredibly proud of the fight they put up and of their season.
I hope I get a chance to coach again, sometime.