Sometimes, it’s Back to the Drawing Board – Even for the Coach

My heart didn’t give out Sunday night.

My deodorant definitely did.

See, when Matt Prater’s kick sailed through the uprights to give my Denver Broncos a stomach churning 51-48 victory against the Dallas Cowboys, my pulse could finally start a slow decline. For a coach, it’s sometimes tougher on the ticker to watch a team you love, but don’t coach.

What a weekend.

It included a day hot as skillet and packed with three straight soccer games. (Guess who wore a black polo shirt on the sideline for the 85-degree day?). Those three soccer games included:

  • A gritty 2-0 victory for Marie’s unbeaten Muleicorns (really their name!)
  • A 2-2 tie for Elise’s Dragons (with no substitutes for either team!)
  • A 7-1 loss for Grace’s Dynamite (against a team we beat 2-0 on opening day)

Emotionally drained and slightly sunburned at midnight Saturday, I watched my alma mater, UNC Charlotte, fall behind by 21 points in the fourth quarter in a game I DVRed, only to rally for 29 points in a 53-51 victory against nationally-ranked Gardner-Webb.

So, that’s 109-108, good guys, if you’re keeping track at home. (With goals from each of my girls!)

That luckily doesn’t include the pretend butt-kickin’ my fantasy team, the Sun City Skunk Kings, are currently enduring at the hands of my brother-in-laws’ team, the Steepleton Silverbacks.

Here’s the thing, though: This lineup isn’t unusual for a typical weekend.

As head coach to one soccer team, assistant to two more, owner of a fantasy team, supporter of an NFL team and alumnus of a school playing its first season of football, I’m used to tons of games between Saturday morning and Sunday night. Wins, losses, ties, goals and heartbreaks.

What I’m not used to is losing my cool.

My composure.

My perspective.

And my edge.

# # #

I’m the coach who says winning will take care of itself. Then, more times than not, wins anyway.

It’s years of experience. It’s always keeping the kids first, not just saying that’s what I believe. It’s an emphasis of effort over outcome, teamwork over titles. A love for your teammates. And the game. Don’t worry about what the opponent is doing, I say. Worry about what your team is.

But as goals piled up against Grace’s Dynamite … 3-0, 4-0, 5-0 … the coach who usually watches the game with arms folded, hand on a chin sometimes, processing, assessing, adjusting … well, he had nothing. Nothing but exasperation, frustration, and unflattering demonstration.

Not nearly enough imagination, explanation or affirmation.

As the Dynamite wilted in their pink jerseys under harsh sunrays and an opponent that sensed their weakness, my coaching philosophy shriveled, too. Lost were lessons to be found in adversity, that thought that a child’s mental musculature will flex when they’re tasked with finding a way to fight back.

Instead, I wrote them – and myself – off. At 2-0.

# # #

The discomfort of my degradation on field 1 that day lacked the clarity I needed to make sense of it, during, and immediately after.

When Grace, usually a wellspring of heart and scoring opportunities, asked to be taken out of the game, moved back to defense, I questioned her. “Why? What’s wrong with you?”

“Why won’t you help us?”

When Grace and her teammates retreated, flat-footed, as the spirited opponent beat them to every ball, I wondered out loud what was going on.


The blue team isn’t walking!

“Dad,” Grace answered. “We’re walking because we’re tired.”

# # #

At halftime, I like to stand alone for a minute or two. Let the kids guzzle Gatorade and put away the Powerade, talk it over on their own, then join the fray and give a couple of points before the second half. This day, I stood on the field with my assistants, indignant, speechless, disconnected.

I don’t remember what we told the team, but they went out in the second half to a worsening outcome. I gritted my teeth. I walked away from the bench.

What can I do?

I gazed at the sky, wondering what dad must think of his son right now.

The team sat silent afterward, cookies and juice packs distributed.

Still, I had nothing.

I kept my eyes on the ground at my feet, the tension of parents and players waiting for answers, for hope, for perspective, for something.

“Bring it in,” I told my Dynamite. “I’ll see you at practice on Tuesday.”

Where was the knowledge? Where was the hope? Where were the words that could have given some indication I had an answer, a direction to turn, a way to make a lesson of the mess we left behind?

I imagined the coaches I admired most – Mike Shanahan, Bill Walsh, John Wooden. What would they have done?

UNC Charlotte coaches, when fate looked grim late in the game, told their players, “be at your best when your best is needed.” I could have said that to my Dynamite, right?

I could have listened to that advice, too.

# # #

This is youth soccer, after all. Not life or death.

But the lessons … I take them seriously.

The kids will forget the scores. They’ll forget the standings. What I hope is that 10, 20, 30 years from now, they’ll remember the lessons.

That’s why, as soon as I’m done writing here, I’ll open a fresh page on a tattered notebook. I’ll turn past notes from Saturday.

I’ll make a new plan.

With an old philosophy.

Because right now, it’s 0-0 again.

And I take heart in that.


  1. There is so much I love about this post. Well written, but that’s a given. Honest, heartfelt, and ultimately hopeful. We all have days when we’re off our game, but how we react to those days is what really matters. You write about how important the lessons are. I think coaches have just as much to learn as players. We can’t always be or give our best. It’s just not possible as humans. But the ability to reset the score board and try again, well that’s simply divine. One game and one day doesn’t define who we are, so turn the page and live to play/coach another day.

    1. Thanks Nicole. Yes, ultimately hopeful. We actually have a game on Tuesday, not practice, so that’s a great place to start over at 0-0.

      I’m definitely learning, too. If we ever feel like we’ve got this whole thing figured out, that’s when the game (and life) like to give us a little reminder.

  2. The kids on your teams are very lucky young people. Why? Because Eli is their coach.

    Outstanding post, amigo.

    1. You’re too kind, Toby! Thanks though.

      I’m lucky to have them, that’s for sure.

  3. Kim says:

    Some days it’s just hard to be the giver!!! I’m glad that you are turning to a fresh page – those kids are lucky to have a coach who cares so much about them and not just the game!!!

    1. I’m lucky to have them too – can’t wait to get back at it Tuesday! Thanks Kim.

  4. Rorybore says:

    dear friend, I’d be more worried about this – if you were NOT worried at all. But it’s a whole new ball game and I think it’s a very good sign that You Want The Ball. “Winners always want the ball when the game is on the line.”
    see, I watch sports movies.
    With Keanu Reeves — winning! 😉

    1. Dude – me and Keanu?

  5. Dana says:

    That’s all you can do, Eli. Turn the page and start fresh this week. Kids are resilient; my guess is that they will be over Saturday long before you will. Even good coaches have bad days. And I suspect you are one of the good guys.

    1. Thanks Dana. It starts Tuesday – we have another game, and I know the kids will be ready to go again! Plus, it won’t be so hot.

      Thanks for suspecting me, Dana. Wait, that doesn’t sound right …

  6. mamarabia says:

    One of the most important things I learned in school was the art of introspection. At the end of the day, what matters most is what you learned from your failures and accomplishments and how you can use that knowledge to make the next day better. I’d say you’re doing just fine. (Except for the part when you were happy that my Cowboys lost…)

    1. These lessons are easier to learn when you win, aren’t they? When you feel as if you’ve failed beyond the scoreboard, though, those are the times you can probably gain more than you can in winning.

      Thanks for the reminder.

      I wasn’t happy so much that Dallas lost, but that Denver found a way to win. Tony Romo is one of my favorite interviews of all time!

  7. Aren’t we all grateful for start overs?! Your post, to me, was a great analogy to life in general. Sometimes, we are just off of our game, and we may even give up. The good news, though, is that it’s not the end of the world, and we can always wake up to a new day!

    1. I know I am. Soccer’s just a metaphor fro life. Or is that the other way around? The new day is today, and I can’t wait.

  8. dishofdailylife says:

    I love this. This says it all: This is youth soccer, after all. Not life or death. It’s not going to change their lives. I’d be willing to bet those kids won’t even be thinking about it next week. But knowing you, you’ll adjust. And the best thing is, the kids have a coach like you who won’t make a big deal out of it, which is the best possible situation for them.

    1. Thanks Michelle. We definitely have to keep it in perspective. I know the kids will forget, but I always keep in mind there are lessons, even when things don’t go well – *especially* when things don’t go well.

  9. laurie27wsmith says:

    Crikey Eli, what a sporting time. You’re going to need a hot drink and a lie down after all that. We don’t want your heart going all tachycardic now do we?

    1. Quite a weekend, mate. I needed a cold one after that day. Tonight, it’ll be 20 degrees cooler for our game, so that hot drink’ll be perfect.

      Tachycardic doesn’t sound good at all.

      1. laurie27wsmith says:

        Tachycardic as you may know is an erratic heartbeat, which you may have after all that coaching and excitement.

      2. I read somewhere that rum and coke is a coach’s best friend.

        Oh wait, that was here.

      3. laurie27wsmith says:

        Nothing like a rum on a cold night, it really gets you going. Don’t forget to set a good example though.

      4. Oh yes. Just one for dad, no more.

  10. Natalie says:

    My husband and I are both competitive, and I constantly wonder what it is going to be like when our kids start sports…of course you want the team and your child to do well…and of course everyone likes winning but that doesn’t always happen. Hoping to get some good tips from you!

    1. I think there’s a difference between winning for the sake of winning (doing all you can to win, as a coach in youth sports), and winning because you’ve brought the entire team along on a journey to improvement and fostering a love for the game.

      You’re going to love this life when your kids get bigger! Are you going to coach them, too? It changed my life. This blog wouldn’t be here without it.

      p.s. We won tonight, 2-0!

  11. My kids have been in some pretty gut wrenching games ; some horrific losses (14-1). But you know, they don’t seem to be as phased by it as I think the adults are! As a coach, the best thing you can do is to set the example how to win and lose gracefully and let them know, no matter what, you believe in them.

    1. We played tonight, using a new formation, and a roving midfielder I called the X. The kids thought they were super heroes when they played it! We won 2-0, but even better than that – we had fun, smiled a lot, and encouraged each other.

      I needed that!

      You’re right, so right Leah. The scores on Saturdays (or Tuesdays) don’t matter as much as what the kids learn and how they take care of each other.

      Setting examples is paramount! I just coached against a man who told his players to push mine. My kids know better. These kids will remember that before they remember a score.

  12. Just cuz you’re the coach doesn’t mean you have a wellspring of words bubbling out of you at any and every given moment. Sometimes you need to reflect. To process. Just like the rest of us. And it’s better to not say anything at the moment than to say negative things that you don’t mean but can’t help feeling right then. I’m sure you more than made up for your quietness with lots of words of wisdom on Tuesday!

    1. You’re right, Kristi – but I usually do! I’m happy to report I brought a fresh demeanor to the field Tuesday. I couldn’t wait to get back to it! We played a spirited match and shocked our opponents for a 2-0 win. One girl, late in the match, yelled “we’re going to win!” and I told her we might, but the big thing was how we played.

  13. Jean says:

    Oh, that’s such an awful feeling when the kids need you to bring something to the table and you just feel empty. I’ve been there. I know you like to have lessons but perhaps it was good they saw you tired and frustrated. It’s good to see adults are fallible, occasionally.

    1. I’m glad it doesn’t happen often – and i’d rather have no answer than the wrong one! How did you handle it? Sometimes, maybe the answer is that there isn’t an answer.

      And they rebounded in a big way, winning their next game 2-0 and more importantly, playing with that love and zeal I love to see in them!

      1. Jean says:

        I let myself be frustrated and then rebounded at the earliest possible opportunity!

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