We only play for about two months, which now that I type that out, seems like a long time for six and seven year olds. I mean, that's one-sixth of the year, but we only have six practices and then about 10-12 games. There's always a routine throughout the season, no matter the age of the kids. The first practice all the kids are super excited to be there. They're hoping they have one or two friends from school they know on their team and they're a bundle of pent up energy from sitting at school all day.
It's my job, as a volunteer coach, to direct that energy into something that's both productive and educational (learning and improving their soccer skills) and fun for them. I'm never sure if I succeed or fail, but looking at past teams I've coached, it looks like 80 percent of my previous teams have continued playing. If the goal of youth recreation sports is to encourage participation, than keeping 80 percent of five and six year-olds playing seems pretty good.
This season was my first coaching in the Under-8 age group, the Shane's Rib Shack Red Bulls. Before, I could basically go out there with enthusiasm and run around for 45 minutes and the kids had a good time. This season, they were a little older, so that idea didn't exactly work. They still wanted fun, but they wanted to learn and be challenged a little more (though I learned after the first practice not to call the drills "challenges" as one kid got really upset about it.).
Over the course of the season, we got to know each other. I learned who had friends on the other teams, what they enjoyed doing, what their favorite ice cream flavor was. As much as I enjoyed the games and watching the team slowly get better in their skills, I enjoyed just as much the times when they weren't in the game and were just hanging out on the sidelines waiting their turn to play. Somewhere along the way, a few of them started making "grass salads" where they'd pull the grass up and pile it up into a "salad" which would then make it's way on to my shoe while I was busy actually coaching.
Coaching is basically yelling "spread out" constantly in different ways trying to convince six and seven year olds to share the ball and pass.
Hunter - Of everyone on the team, Hunter was by far the quietest. He was also one of the smallest kids on the team, but he came to every practice, tried hard and improved significantly. He loved playing goalie more than any kid should.
Zoe - Zoe was a spark plug. I'm not sure she ever gets tired. It didn't matter if she was on offense or defense, she would run the length of the field even if it meant she was out of position. Despite my best efforts (as well as those of her parents) she was a ball hawk who wanted to be in the middle of the action.
Kevin - In our first practice, I was offering minimal defense as we were working on dribbling. Kevin pulled off a move I'm not sure I could do at 17, let alone seven, and I knew I was in trouble. Kevin is a gifted soccer player who, at times, looked bored on the field. I'd let him score two or three goals in a game (often in the first two minutes he played offense) and then ask him to see how many assists he could get.
Kelly - I've seen Kelly on other teams over the past few seasons and was excited to have her on our team this year. She would do anything I asked her to, was always excited, and was the originator of the grass salad. She would always ask if it was ok if she went to sit with her parents when she wasn't in the game, but as the season went along, she started spending more time next to me on the sidelines and we got to talk alot.
Parker - Parker, it turns out, lives in our neighborhood. His dad came up to me after practice one day and asked where we lived and after I told him, he said he thought he recognized me from my walks. He also practiced with the wrong team the first day of practice (each team had half the field, and he went to the other half.) Parker loved playing goalie and was always enthusiastic.
Billy - Through no fault of his own, Billy was my most challenging player. He was so high energy that it was sometimes difficult to keep him under control either during practice or games. Like Zoe, he would chase the ball all over the field regardless of his position. But as the season progressed, I saw Billy's energy as a blessing as he always kept me on my toes and made sure I was ready to do what I needed to do.
J.B. - I played soccer with JB's dad when we were in high school together. JB is an excellent defender who is every coach's dream in that he just wants to do what he can to help the team. In our second to last game, he wanted to be goalie but I couldn't work out the player rotation, so I promised him he could be goalie to start our last game. As soon as he got to the field for that last game, he said "coach, I'm goalie, right?"
Jayden - I'm not sure Jayden liked me at the beginning of the season. Or maybe he was just adjusting to a new team like everyone else and was struggling with that adjustment. Either way, he was frustrated with me after two practices. But then something clicked and he was excited to be at every practice. He really didn't like when players would leave their position to chase the ball. I saw him away from the fields this week and he made sure to say "Hi Coach Luke" and gave me a high five.
Andrew - My son, who is the entire reason I coach youth soccer to begin with. I wasn't sure I wanted to do it this year, thinking it would be nice to sit on the sidelines, cheer for him and the team and just enjoy the games. But about two weeks before the season start, I asked him if he wanted me to coach. He said he did, so I let the recreation department know. It's hard not to show favoritism and I wonder if sometimes I didn't go too far the other way, not starting him more often than not because he was the coach's kid. He never complained, though he did emphasize that he did NOT want to play goalie.
|My son, Andrew, with his medal following our season.|
There were times during the season that I really just wanted to be able to sit at home. Whether it was a long day at work or (more likely) me staying up too late the night before watching baseball, sometimes I didn't want to go. But once I got out there and saw our team, it was so much fun.
After our last game, Andrew wanted to watch his friend play in the game after ours. One of the players on that team was a girl I'd coached my first season of coaching. I went over to say hi to her and her parents and her dad told me how much both she and he enjoyed that season and ever since then, he judges his daughter's coach in comparison to how I did.
"You did such a good job of not only making it fun, but also teaching them something," he said. "Not all coaches can talk to kids but you're really good at it."
That, obviously, made me feel good, and it was fun to watch her and the rest of the kids playing.
I'm looking forward to not coaching basketball or baseball (the next two sports my son will most likely play as the school year progresses) and just being a sports dad, but when next Fall rolls around, it'll be time to coach soccer again and I'm already looking forward to it.