My girls have each won soccer championships. They’ve each lost championships, too. Wins and losses? Believe it or not, they’re secondary in the journey.
Why do I coach? It won’t make me rich. Fame and acclaim? None. My club and recreation soccer positions aren’t my gateways to a gig leading U.S. Soccer into its next era.
It’s for moments. Moments that feel small at the time, but loom larger as time goes on. Opportunities. Chances when character is revealed. Memories. Snapshots of a season or a match or even a single shot on goal burned indelibly in my soul that surpasses anything fiction could conjure.
So many of these instances involve other people’s kids; in displays of sportsmanship and humanity, lesson-learning and heartbreak, and triumph and disappointment. I’m thankful for them all.
Here’s three larger-than-life moments, from each of my girls, early in their careers, that, to me, rank in the annals of sports lore, right up there with Walt Frazier and Brandi Chastain and Joe Montana.
Elise: “They think they’re gonna score, but they’re not!”
Just one season into my coaching career and before the pages had yellowed on my copy of “Complete Idiot’s Guide to Coaching Youth Soccer,” Elise’s Froggies found themselves in a tournament battle with the Iguanas.
The league featured four teams, three of which wore green uniforms, and all of which were named for amphibians or reptiles. The Creepy Crawly Cup.
The Iguanas had their way with us all season, as Iguanas are wont to do, encouraged wholeheartedly by one rotund and enthusiastic supporter who stood on the sideline and bellowed incessantly, “Whoose gonna WEEN?? EE-guah-nahs!” Intimidating for sure.
The Froggies fell behind 2-0, and it looked like status quo for my favorite greenies. But 2-0 happens to be the most tenuous lead in soccer; if the losing team should luck out and score, it’s suddenly anyone’s match. That’s just what the Froggies did.
After two quick and unexpected goals, its 2-2, and we’re headed for overtime. And guess who is supposed to play goalkeeper next?
The dad in me wanted to put someone else in that high-pressure spot. The coach in me wanted to see what she could do.
After a scoreless overtime, I managed to bungle the penalty kicks and we lost. We got there, though, with a couple of nifty saves by my kid. I asked her afterward what she thought about in goal.
She said, “I kept telling myself, ‘They think they’re gonna score, but they’re not! They think they’re gonna score, but they’re not!’”
And they didn’t.
Sometimes, you have to have faith.
Marie: Setting off the fireworks with the Firecrackers
Marie’s team, the Firecrackers, were duds. At least they seemed to be. After a season in which goal scoring came with great pains, we stumbled into the Cabarrus County Invitational as the second-lowest seed. No expectations here – although we hadn’t given up many goals, you still had to score some to win.
Or did you? These Firecrackers wound up in a championship without scoring a single one.
The Firecrackers played a scoreless tie in their first tournament match, and then shocked the home team by stealing a penalty-kick victory after a scoreless overtime. The next night, after another scoreless tie, it came down to Pk’s again.
“They did this to us last night!” the coach of our previous victim said from the sideline.
As we moved through the tense and familiar territory of high-pressured penalty kicks, I noticed other coaches telling their kids before their shot, “If you make/miss this, we’ll win/lose!” You’d be surprised how big a 7-year-old’s eyes can get when they have the weight of the world (or at least Cabarrus County) on their shoulders.
I kept my little Firecrackers in the dark. None of them knew what rode on the next kick.
I maintained that poker face as Marie stepped up as the next shooter, poised to clinch victory. The coaches from the night before openly questioned my choice.
“Why would they let a girl take a kick this big??” they wondered out loud.
“That’s not just any girl,” her mom said. “That’s MY girl!”
Marie fired a beautiful shot into the lower left-hand corner of the net, and I scooped her up in the air. She had no idea she’d just put the hard-luck Firecrackers in the tournament final, until I’d swung her around, put her down and her ecstatic teammates swarmed her.
Sometimes, you just have to play. And not think.
Grace: Enough is enough.
Grace’s first two seasons ended in tears. Before you go peg me as the mean kind of winner-takes-all-coach, I must point out that I’ve never placed a premium on winning at all cost. Not even when a perfect season hangs in the balance.
But Grace puts her heart into it. Even in under-6 tournaments. Especially in under-6 tournaments under the lights.
Grace starred on the Cheetahs this season, with 25 goals to lead the league. We rolled to the championship game with thoughts of an undefeated season dancing in little kindergarten heads.
Grace, though, turned up at the playing grounds late for the big game. My rules are strict: The kids who show up first get to be captains. The first seven players get to start the game. Players who get there after those first seven get to come in during the second quarter.
Without their scoring leader, the Cheetahs struggled. The Giraffes took advantage and took a 1-0 lead into halftime, whooping and hollering and giddy as they left the field, beating the mighty Cheetahs.
Little Cheetahs faces showed the story of a shocking end to a perfect season. They looked like little Tom Bradys after the 17-0 New England Patriots lost in the Super Bowl a few years ago.
“Daddy,” Grace asked, knowing she’d play forward in the second half. “Can I go out there now?”
Halftime had just started.
Her teammates hadn’t even started squirting each other with Gatorade.
Lips pursed, she strode to midfield, glaring at the premature celebrators in purple, and stood at the center circle, foot squarely on the soccer ball, arms crossed in defiance. She waited. Even the parents from the other team noticed.
Taking control wasn’t easy. The Giraffes came at Grace with a vengeance, tugging her jersey, shoving her from behind, sandwiching her from all sides.
Grace had enough, though, for a tying goal, then a winning goal, and then a fourth quarter spent on defense, warding off one last Giraffes rally.
Gatorade and Goldfish and gold medal, duly earned.
Sometimes, you just have to take the giraffes by the … horns?