We are not “sports family.” That’s not to say that no one living under this roof has never played competitive sports. I played six years of football in school. My wife played volleyball and basketball. We both sampled a variety of sports from the local little league buffet when growing up. Sports aren’t foreign to us. We understand their place in a healthy lifestyle, in a community’s pride, and the role they can play in a local economy. We get that they can be an expression of what’s going on in society at large. That people can rally around their country’s best amateur athletes every fourth summer or winter.
We just don’t care.
The last football game I remember watching was Super Bowl XLVIII, which featured the Seattle Seahawks defeating the Denver Broncos. That was on February 2, 2014. I only know the date because I had to look it up online for this article, and to verify that was, in fact, the Super Bowl we watched, I cross-checked it against news articles that documented the date of that game against the one thing that my family was more excited about that weekend, which was an overnight trip to St. Louis to see Alton Brown’s “Eat Your Science” tour the night before the Super Bowl.
My oldest child and only son has Asperger’s Syndrome. He doesn’t care about sports. I know because I tried to get him to play a couple. That didn’t go so well. Now in sixth grade, he focuses on music, playing the piano and clarinet. My middle child and oldest daughter has a heart condition that restricts her from rigorous physical activity, so she never has, nor will have a chance, to engage in competitive sports, which is fine with her. She prefers dance and theater.
In the case of both of my older children, they receive specialized instruction from educators with an expertise in the areas that interest my kids. I can’t teach my son how to play an instrument. I dropped out of piano lessons when I was five. I can’t teach my older daughter ballet. I never took dance lessons and still maintain the grace, elegance, and the sense of rhythm of a hippo with a mild case of indigestion.
Then there’s my youngest daughter. She’s the athlete. Built like a powderkeg, she’s the one who asked to sign up for little league soccer. Being the type of parents who wants their kids to try everything so that they can find their passion, my wife and I signed her up for spring soccer.
I skipped the checkbox next to “I am willing to coach.”
She played and loved her spring soccer season. It was her first year. She wasn’t particularly good, but she hustled. She listened to her coach and tried to do what he said. I went to the games. I cheered. I encouraged. I told her how proud I was that she hustled, listened, and tried to do what her coach said. And that was about as invested as I got. I mean, it was rec league youth soccer.
She had a blast and asked to play in the fall league. Naturally, we signed her up again. Name, gender, date of birth, shirt size. I filled out the registration form and once again left the “I am willing to coach” box unchecked. Then, about a week before I knew that the coaches (God bless ’em) were going to meet, get their team assignments, and pick practice times, I got The Call.
I won’t go into all the details, but if you’ve been associated with youth sports, you’ve probably gotten The Call, known someone who has or maybe even had to make The Call yourself. What it boiled down to was this: if we don’t find another coach (or two), then we can’t form this team, which means either 1) your child can’t play, or 2) your child will be placed on an overcrowded team and her playing time will be severely limited.
Are you willing to coach?
Me? Coach soccer? I never played soccer. Everything I know about soccer can be counted on one hand. You run. You kick a ball. You don’t use your hands. You fall down and pretend your shin was shattered every time someone runs within 15 feet of you. You get Capri Sun when the game is over.
But, if it’s a choice between me sucking it up and coaching soccer or my daughter not getting to play, then I’ll do it, I said. I thought I was doing it for my daughter and the rest of the kids on the Team That Would Not Be unless I graced them with my presence for an hour every Tuesday and Saturday. I had no idea what I would get out of coaching my daughter’s soccer team.
- Bonding with my daughter. This one should be obvious, but my daughter loves having her dad coach her team. Even though we’re out there with another ten kids (give or take), it’s something we do together. Just us. No mom, no older siblings. As far as she’s concerned, it’s just the two of us out there, spending time together. For me, it’s not even the practice time that’s important. It’s the time driving to and from the practice field. Just the two of us, sharing an activity and time together.
- Exercise. I’m not terribly unfit, but there is a difference between mindlessly walking the track at the fitness center for a half-hour and spending an hour running around trying to herd a group of first and second graders. Both my daughter and I sleep well the nights after a practice.
- Meeting new people. When it was time to decide where to live and raise our family, my wife and I agreed to do so in our hometown. When she and I graduated, our senior class sizes were around 225 kids. It was a fairly small town, and still is in many ways, but in the two decades or so since we received our high school diplomas, ours has been one of the fastest growing cities in one of the fastest growing counties in the state. Now, the class size for each of our three kids is easily double what my wife and I experienced. Where we had six or so grade level teachers under one roof during elementary school, our school district now has four elementary schools, each housing kindergarten through fifth grade. If my kids knew every student in their grade at their school building–good luck just getting my Aspy son to know every kid at his table–then they would still only know a quarter of the kids they will be thrown in with once they reach middle school. Coaching youth sports is a fantastic way to get to know the other kids and parents that you’re going to be running into all over town and at school functions for the next decade or more.
- Expanding knowledge base and skill sets. I never knew the different positions on the soccer field. I thought everyone just ran around chasing the ball (okay, my knowledge of soccer was slightly more sophisticated than that). Being thrown into the deep end, I was forced to research what I needed to be teaching these kids at this level. How to dribble. How to pass. Proper names and techniques. I can’t say that my life is richer because of soccer, but I certainly know and understand the game more than I did before.
- Thinking on the fly. Aside from the time with my daughter, this has to be my favorite part of coaching. I love puzzles and games. Watching how a soccer game is playing out, making real-time adjustments, and seeing them work is extremely gratifying.
- Modeling the “right” behavior and attitude. Look, I understand that my job as a first- and second-grade soccer coach is to make sure the kids have a good time and come back season after season so that as they mature the real coaches can make them into better players. If I can teach them the right way to do something on the field, that’s certainly better than not teaching them anything or teaching them the wrong thing. Part of that is modeling and teaching them how to have a positive attitude in the face of adversity, how to be a good sport, how to listen, and how to react. In other words, don’t run them off or ruin them for the next guy and show them how to be better citizens in general. How nice is it when you see one of your kids helping their teammate off the ground? How much better is it when those two then go help up an opponent?
- Confidence. I know I’m not ten feet tall and bulletproof, but having a fun and successful season under my belt coaching one sport that I previously had no interest in–and, if not for my daughter, still would have no interest in and probably won’t spare a second thinking about once she no longer plays anymore–gave me the confidence to check the “I am willing to coach” box when I signed her up for her first season of basketball this winter. This Saturday marks the halfway point of our season. We’re having fun and I haven’t run off anyone yet.
I know that at some point either she will turn away from sports in pursuit of other interests or she’ll mature beyond what little encouragement and knowledge I can give her. She’ll either no longer need a coach or she’ll need a coach that can help her develop her skill sets in order to step her game up to the next level. She won’t need dad yelling from the coach’s sideline anymore. I’ll have to go back to the spectator’s side and yell encouragement from there.
But not yet.