I became an accidental soccer coach this spring, volunteering to help out on the sidelines at Flora’s soccer games. Turns out I was making decisions about where the girls were playing, when and who to sub, and calling out actual coaching instructions, including, for the defense, “To the outside!” and for offense, “Talk to each other!”
Saturday the girls had a tournament, and despite all expectations that it would be canceled – the weather was chilly and rainy, and by 2 p.m. when our first game was scheduled to start, the field was a mud pit – the tournament carried on. Apparently, it was the last weekend the youth referees were due to work, so the tournament had to go on.
Girls and parents stood under umbrellas and a small tent canopy complaining about the conditions. “Can you believe it?” we asked each other. “I can’t believe they didn’t cancel. The field is getting destroyed!” The soccer leagues in my area are usually quite fussy about their fields.
And then we split the girls into two teams, and they went out and played. And even with their complaining, mostly about how cold it was, they played well.
They fell in the mud, and got back up. They ran, they kicked, they scored goals (our girls teams came in first and second in their round of the tournament). They adjusted to the conditions, quickly realizing the soccer ball was going to bog down in the large puddles that dotted thefield. Staying clean and dry was not an option, so they embraced the mud.
Among the girls I coached on Saturday, a couple of them had their best game of the season. I was floored by the defensive work of Emily. It turns out Madi is a leader, instructing and encouraging her teammates. Ariel was all in as a wing, and then held off the other team in goal. Flora’s team has amazing goalies, girls who love the position and the adrenaline and challenge it brings. And Taylor, who was playing her first year of soccer, proved herself unafraid to get down and dirty. She showed more tenacity on Saturday than I had seen to date, and her reward was a goal. Rea was hesitant — she was cold and didn’t like the mud at all — but she dug deep and found her spirit. Cassidy kept her foot on the ball, kept trying to score, and eventually got the goal that had been eluding her. Sophie, too, had to push past the ick factor, and then played extraordinarily well on both offense and defense.
Flora has been playing soccer since she was about 5. In my experience, third or fourth grade is when the mechanics of the game start clicking for players. They start to understand positions, passing, dribbling, and playing the ball. They start challenging and crashing the box. They learn to play to the whistle. This year has seen her greatest improvement yet. It helped that she played year-round this year: fall and spring are outdoor seasons, and a winter indoor season.
Indoor soccer is a different beast than outdoor. It is faster, for one, and the ball is seldom out of play – there are no sidelines or throw ins. The field is bigger, too, and there are no offsides. It is all running, and if there’s one thing Flora can do, it’s run. She prefers to play defense, and she does not want to get beat. At the Saturday tournament, she even challenged a boy (we mixed boys and girls for the second game because the boys did not have enough players) a whole head taller than she is, and quite often beat him.
One of the fathers on the sidelines remarked, “I liked having the girls and boys play together. I thought the skill level would be unequal, but it was on par.” Another coach and father of one of the daughters on Flora’s team said, “Between the girls and boys?” Like it was the stupidest thing he heard.
It was the stupidest thing I had heard. Flora’s teams this year for the first time were mostly all girl. But she’s been playing with boys since she started, and she also practiced with boys all spring. So I don’t know why this father thought girls’ skills would be underpar when compared to boys. I just gave him a look, and went back to coaching.
There are probably studies out there about how good sports are for girls. That they boost confidence and self esteem, as well as health and possibly body image.
None of the girls I coach care about that. They just want to play hard and do well, do the best they can. Winning is nice, especially when they play well. Losing is hard, especially when they play well. And maybe they are learning from lessons from that, too: perseverance, that life can be disappointing, that win or lose, it really is how you play.
I know Flora had her best year of soccer ever. She was one of the best players on her indoor team; also one of the oldest. Her spring league was 5th and 6th graders, so while she wasn’t the best on her team, she was certainly on a good squad of skilled players, and she totally added to that.
The squad of girls I coached came in first in their four-way tournament. I told each and every one of them they earned their trophy. Taylor was so proud. “Not bad for my first year.”
What do you think of girls in sports?