By Tim Nash
I’ve coached girls youth soccer for a long time. And one of the reasons I still enjoy it is that every year I learn a lot.
Most years, I discover new ways to reach players, or figure out the pros and cons of certain styles of play. I learn different ways to teach technique and how to adapt to new twists in the game.
This year, I coached two teams — 04s (players born in 2004) and 03s (born in 2003). For those of you who don’t like math, the 04s were 12 or about to turn 13; the 03 were 13 or 14. Once again, I learned a lot, but the main takeaway from this year has to do with parents.
The other night, I was at a function that included my girls as well as some 10-, 11- and 12-year-old players and their families. While the girls played in the pool, I watched the parents from the younger teams, the ones just getting started, interact with each other. They were having a great time reminiscing about the year. They talked about certain games, tournaments, hotels, team dinners, other teams they played, and what a fantastic team they had. They spent nine months together and formed friendships that will go on for years.
But I couldn’t help but think they might very well be missing the main point.
A mom of one of my players, a woman I have come to respect for her logical approach to youth soccer, once told me that “Soccer is my time to spend with my daughter. It’s as simple and as complicated as that.”
Watching the parents of the young players, I hoped they understood the opportunity they have. And I really hope they know it won’t last.
They get to spend time with their daughters, and before they know it their daughters will not be all that excited about spending time with them. They will have driver’s licenses, boyfriends, jobs, more intense school commitments, and unfortunately a lot more freedom.
But for now, the parents get to see how their child interacts with adults, friends, difficult people and authority figures. They get to see their daughters handle challenges, success and disappointment. How do they handle a loss? Do they make excuses, or throw around blame? How do they react to a disappointment, some devastating enough that they are brought to tears? How do they react to a teammate who is crushed because of a mistake that cost the team a win? Ignore her or console her? Do share credit, insist on attention? Are they, heaven forbid, a jerk?
The parents have a chance to see certain behaviors and help correct or reinforce those behaviors. They can help their child understand difficult problems and find the best solutions.
And they have rare opportunities to talk to their daughter on those long car rides, or in a hotel room. They can use phrases like, “I’m proud of you,” which by the way, is one of the main reasons your daughter is playing.
I hope the parents know that one of the common factors that leads children to give up sports is the ride home. I also hope the parents of those young players use the opportunity for conversation well, and that asking questions is far more effective than lecturing. I hope they know that phrases like, “You played well, but no one was helping you,” have no lasting value. The point is to get them to want to go out in the backyard on their own, not to force them. And not many parents know that their daughter doesn’t care if she plays on the left or the right side of the field. They just don’t want to play on the parents’ side.
As I watched the parents at the party, I knew they were in the midst of tryouts, which annually brings anxiety, nerves and tears. The team they came to enjoy so much might not stay together. There will be changes. I hope they look at a change as an opportunity for their daughter to make new friends and experience new things. There are, after all, really only three emotions kids go through after they learn what team they’ve made — devastation, elation or relief. I hope the parents find a way to make the best of whatever emotion with which they are faced.
At that same pool party, I approached one of my 03s. We lost the semifinal game of a tournament in penalties after finishing regulation 0-0. She had missed her pk, the deciding one, and felt horrible about it, tears and all. A few hours later, at the pool party, I said to her, “You had a great tournament and a great season. I’m sorry you were in that situation at the end. It’s very nerve-wreaking spot to be in.” I was prepared to tell her more about her character, leadership qualities, and the tremendous progress she made. But she stopped me, and what she said is a perfect an example of what your daughter can learn through the game and what you can learn about her. She smiled a little, thanked me and said, “I was really nervous. That’s the first time I’ve ever done that. Next time, I’ll know and I’ll do better.”
Tim Nash is the author of four soccer books, the most recent “It’s Not the Glory,” is available in all formats at Lulu.com