Of the many things I never imagined myself doing in my late 30s, coaching soccer is right up there at the top of the list--alongside things like performing interpretive skate-dances to humiliate my daughter and her friends and explaining to my son why his penis "pokes out" in the morning. But here I am, a few weeks shy of 37, and I've somehow ended up as not only a coach, but the U-8 league coordinator, in possession of a large Adidas duffle bag, a clipboard, several extra balls, and a newly-developed penchant for saying things like "hustle" and "drop back."
When I first enrolled Sydney in soccer, I checked the "Assistant Coach" box on the registration form, because I am just that stupid. A few days later, the league commissioner called and left me a voicemail, explaining that they were short a few head coaches and would I be interested in stepping up? "It's not that big a deal," said he. "The game really teaches itself." Because I am not always completely dense, I understood that to mean "We are desperate to recruit the requisite number of suckers and we will say anything to persuade you. Sucker." I ignored the voicemail, knowing that if I returned the call I would end up not only agreeing to coach, but to manage their website or oversee the maintenance of the playing fields for the next twenty years. That's how these types of conversations tend to go. But he tricked me by calling back, from a different number, and I unwittingly answered, and the next thing I knew I was sweating my way through a coaches' clinic, dribbling through "minefields" and going 1 v 1 against men who I had just seen neck-trapping their kids' balls. I told myself that I was doing it for Sydney, which I was: I knew she would be less ambivalent about playing if I coached her team. Also, I am a total sucker.
The U-6 draft, where all the coaches (me and 15 soccer dads) took turns selecting players from the roster to assemble our teams, was eye-opening: I watched the more veteran coaches choose players based on age (the older the better) and then, it seemed, on the ethnicity suggested by the surname. But the season turned out fine; Sydney enjoyed it immensely and the whole team had fun. My learning curve was huge, but I do enjoy a challenge, and I'll admit to being a little sad when the season ended. But mostly I was relieved, since Sydney would be moving up to U-8 in the Spring and there was no way in hell I could ever be persuaded to coach in U-8.
When the voicemails started coming, I studiously ignored them. I braced myself for battle. Sydney was firmly committed to the sport; my job was done. They didn't need me! Look at all those dudes with their bulging calves and their Pumas! They could totally handle it.
I successfully dodged multiple recruiting entities for a couple of weeks, and I thought they had finally given up when I got a phone call in the middle of a busy clinical day from a number I didn't recognize. The commissioner was on the line, his voice thick with congestion. He coughed loudly into the receiver. "It's really not a big difference from U-6," he croaked. "But I really can't do it this season," I replied. "I'm really very busy." There was a pause on the other end; a child cried. "I'm sorry, can you say that again?" he said. "We all have bronchitis here and this fever is making me a little out of it." I realized I'd been beaten. "Send me the details," I said, and hung up the phone, realizing in that moment that I am a person who will never be able to say no.
While the U-6 draft had been a little disorienting, the U-8 draft was downright frightening. Once again, I was the only woman in the room, and I watched the men (mostly dads who did not have sons) debate the relative merits of the players (6 and 7 year-old girls) as if they were auctioning cattle or something. The therapist in me recognized all the uncomfortably hostile dynamics swirling around that dark little room, and when I realized I had ended up with a team full of young players, several of whom were openly disparaged by the veteran coaches ("she looks like she's never seen a soccer ball before"), I experienced a surge of resolve. We will be the Bad News Bears. We will suck, we will persevere, and then we will dominate.
And that's pretty much what happened. We lost every single game, but kept working on finding open space and passing and holding positions, and in the very last game, we dominated. Like a switch had been thrown, every single player on that team played very good soccer; they passed, they attacked and defended, they scored. There was one player in particular, a shy girl who cried at the beginning of every practice and game and who often seemed lost on the field, who made tremendous progress. At the beginning of the last game I took her aside and told her that if she played aggressively, I knew she would score a goal (she had never done so, and desperately wanted to). And she did, she scored, and her parents cried on the sidelines, and I knew in that moment that I would coach soccer for as long as they would allow me to do it.
This season, I didn't hesitate to sign on to coach; I no longer needed to be persuaded. So when the call from the commissioner came, I cheerfully answered, expecting to hear some details about clinics or drafts or something. "So, we're really trying to recruit more women coaches for the girl's leagues..." he began. "Excellent!" I said. "That's fantastic!" "...And we think that having a woman as the league coordinator would really help."
"It's not really that big a commitment."
"I'm really very busy, you know."
"All you have to do is make sure we have enough coaches, and run the grading and the draft, and then make sure the season runs smoothly and everyone is following the rules and such."
What he neglected to mention at this point was that league coordinators get free beer from the concession stand. I found this out later, after I had agreed to the job, and I guess if he knew me better he would have led with that perk instead of the whole "step up for the good of all women" thing. Either way, I got suckered again, and am once again proceeding with gasping, stumbling steps up a steep learning curve. I'm learning that some men really don't like when a woman is in charge, and they will get downright nasty about it, but that they will yield when that woman shows no mercy and no patience for the nonsense they try to throw at her. I learned that in an Olympic year, every kid suddenly wants to play soccer, and that instead of 8 teams you can expect to have 12 in each league, and as league coordinator you will spend every second of your non-existent free time recruiting additional coaches and trying to usher 105 children through grading drills. I've learned that it is in fact an excellent thing for these girls to see a woman in charge--especially when that woman is also not afraid to hug them on the field when they score.
But perhaps most important of all, I've learned not to be shy about saying "I'm the league coordinator" when the kids at the concession stand try to charge me for my beer.