Coach Your Way to Fitness
I started coaching my daughter’s soccer team last year, as I wrote about here. I’d never been a head coach before, in any sport, and had no confidence in my ability to do it. But I plunged in, and learned enough about the game on the fly to teach bits and pieces of it to the kids. We had a really good fall season, followed by an okay spring season.
For reasons that I think made sense at some point, I decided to move the team up to a travel league this year. We’re getting crushed on the field, but the kids are working hard and enjoying themselves, giving me hope that we’ll be a little more competitive in the second half of the season.
This past weekend, we played three games, all on Sunday. I entered our team in this particular tournament because it promised a “C” division for our age group. Before signing up I made it clear to the tournament director that we have a new team, with a mix of U11 and U12 players — fifth and sixth graders. I wanted to make sure we weren’t signing up to get blown out, like we do in our league games. She assured me that the C division was exactly what we were looking for.
The three games weren’t close, but if nothing else I learned how other teams assess their own abilities. We call ourselves a B team because our organization has A teams for U11 and U12. They’ve been playing together for years, and rarely lose against other A-division teams. Our group is a mix of kids who either got cut from those teams, chose not to play on them because they weren’t able to make the commitment, or had little interest in travel soccer until I formed this team.
What I learned is that other organizations will field one team per age group, but call it a B-division team if they don’t think they’ll be competitive in the A division. The three teams we played were competitive against each other — all their games were decided by a single goal — but were way above our level.
The first game was an unmitigated disaster. Our opponent was a premier team — that’s a level above A-division travel — that had been placed in the C division because they’re a U11 team. You can tell you’re up against a premier team when you see the row of black chairs lined up on their side of the field. That’s where the coaches and subs sit during the game. Travel coaches stand while our subs sit on the ground.
So we were beaten by the furniture before the game even started.
Fortunately, we had a long break in between games, and after eating lunch, I got the girls onto an unused field for an impromptu practice, coming up with a drill on the spot. I had my starting defense — four fullbacks and the goalie — go up against one player: me.
I’m not a real player, of course, but I am faster than a typical preteen girl. (Maybe I should put that on my resume.) One of the big problems we have as a team is that our girls practice against each other — which is to say, against other girls at our own level of skill and experience. Then we go out and play against kids who’re stronger, faster, and more skilled, and have been playing together longer.
So what I did in this practice was impersonate a stronger team’s offense. I dribbled the way they would dribble, and I passed to open spaces where they would typically have a player waiting. There was nobody to pass to, so I’d have to sprint to the open space to receive my own pass. When I was out of breath I’d stop play to explain to my defenders how to position themselves to stop the kind of passes I was making.
I think it worked. Our girls were much more competitive in the second game than they’d been in the first. We still lost 4-0, but it was against a team that lost by a single goal to our other opponents. And I don’t think I’m being delusional when I say the game was much closer than the score indicated.
We still got blown out in the third game, but I expected it. We had no subs by that point, and several of the girls played every minute of the three games. Their legs were dead, and I think they were emotionally spent after their season-best effort in the second game.
But it wasn’t a lost weekend, for them or for me. For the first time all season, they feel like they can compete against travel teams, even if they aren’t yet good enough to win. And as their coach, I gave myself the best workout I’ve had in weeks.
I’m already paying the price, with sore legs to go with a face that’s wind-burned and pocked with mosquito bites. (The bites form almost a straight line across my forehead; these were disciplined, well-coached, A-division bugs.) But I’m not complaining. Few things are more satisfying to a fitness geek than sneaking in a workout when you didn’t expect one.