What One Player-Coach Conversation Taught Me about Transformations, the Uses (and Limits) of Frustration, and When to Let Go of (Some) Authority.

I called the player over after practice had ended.

“Do we have a problem?” I asked him.

“Do you want brutal honesty?”

I said yes, I did.

He looked at the empty field, the sky, the fenced horse pasture beyond. Then he started talking.

*

An hour later, I pulled up my driveway, parked my car, shut the garage door and let myself into the kitchen, where my wife was dicing shallots and boiling water for farfalle.

I sat on the floor, leaned back against the wall, and shut my eyes a minute. Then I told my wife what the young man had shared with me.

*

The team had gotten beat the night before. Our 4-2 record worsened to 4-3 after a minute-long lapse in defense ended with our opponents up two goals. Players pointed fingers; we coaches struggled to contain our own frustrations.

After the match, several players’ parents made it clear to us coaches they were displeased with the performance but also with the ways they believed we’d handled personnel issues.

This isn’t unusual. Losses tend to stress players, parents, fans, and coaches alike. Fault lines become fissures; fissures become cracks.

We coaches hung around long after I’d killed the field lights and the parking lot emptied, comparing notes on the loss and discussing how best to shore up our boys’ shaken stores of resolve.

Our guys, we all agreed, had lost sight of what was essential: to work for each other on the field and off of it. That meant looking to work into positions to support their teammates who often found themselves isolated in one-against-two or one-against-three situations. That meant changing criticisms into encouragement. That meant, more often than not, shutting up and playing rather than worrying about what should have happened or who should have made which run or won which ball or made which pass.

We coaches wanted to remain positive. We had to set the tone, we knew that. Our message had to be

the season was not lost

  1. despite a few lapses, we’d played good — at times great — soccer, and were capable of maintaining that high level of play, and
  2. the problems we were facing as a team weren’t technical or tactical problems, they were psychological problems. Problems of belief. Problems a few coaches and myself refer to commonly as “want to” problems.

In other words, we had to decide to want to work harder, to commit to playing our game for a full match all the time.

We decided I would run next afternoon’s practice while the head and JV coaches took players aside and addressed these issues.

While planning the practice the following afternoon, I debated how best to do my part to help the boys see through their “want to” and teamwork issues. My instincts took me back to a drill I’d come across while researching plans to address team fitness and recovery. I would open practice with a game that pitted seven players against seven on a small field with one goal on each of the four boundary lines. Players would have one mark — one opponent they had to cover both on and off the ball. If their mark scored, they had to leave the game field and run one lap around the full soccer field, during which their teammates had to play a man down.

The purpose was — so I thought, anyway — fairly straightforward: nothing about the nature of play really changed; they still pass and move, recover on defense, and look to find ways to advance the ball toward goal by using the outside lanes of the field. What changed was the way each player had now to think about his responsibility to his teammates.

If he slipped up and, say, let his man receive the ball in space for a quick shot and score, he let his teammates down. His teammates would have to play that much harder while he ran his lap.

After they’d stretched and loosened up, I organized the boys into even teams and explained the drill. After both groups of players started playing I stood for a time at the sideline of one field, then the other, holding one of our team’s fiery blood-orange and black Adidas soccer balls in my hands to keep the game moving when one team kicked the ball out of play.

Three minutes passed, four, five. Goals were scored; players left the playing field and hurried around the game field as quickly as they could manage. Their hustle suggested they’d discovered the spirit of the game; they were eager to prove to their teammates, through hustle and strong, connected play, that they were working for the team, not just for themselves.

All of the boys seemed to get it except for one player — a senior, one of our starting midfielders — who lost the ball to a player on the other team then stood watching the other player dribble into one of the goals.

“I don’t get this!” he shouted. “What’s the point?

A few of his teammates tried to coax him back to playing. He tried to toe-poke the ball away from a sophomore who scooted past him easily and passed the ball into the goal. Then he threw up his hands and said a few things I couldn’t make out from where I was standing off the side line. Though I couldn’t hear him, I could sense, from where I was standing, that he was about to lose it. Anger and frustration overwhelmed him.

His teammates wouldn’t know how to react to him, to me, to the drill.

I feared we might lose him, lose the game, lose a few of his teammates as well.

I wasn’t afraid they’d quit, or that I’d lose control of the practice. I feared we’d lose some of the fight and the belief we’d all been working to develop since May and June — nearly six months, now.

I feared that this fault line, under the pressure this player exerted, would quake.

I called a halt to the game, called in the players who were making their lap around the field. I asked the senior midfielder what it was he didn’t get.

“Any of it,” he said. “We’re just playing to score so that someone else has to run.”

“Are we really?” I asked. “Is that what’s really happening?”

A few of the boys shook their heads.

“Is anything really changing? Do the rules of this game really force you to change the way you play soccer?”

A few more of the boys shook their heads.

I looked at the senior, who was standing hands-at-his-sides and furrow-browed. I saw a young man who was exhausted. I saw a young man who felt there was a better way and his coaches and maybe even a few of his teammates couldn’t see it. I saw a young man on the verge of graduating high school, a young man enrolled in college-credit-plus courses at the university campus where I teach writing, a young man anxious to gain a research position with a senior faculty member trying to figure out why proteins are killing certain strains of bacteria. A young man with ambitions, dreams, intelligence, and more than a fair amount of soccer know-how and skill.

I saw a young man who made me a little angry. And, I have to be honest: I saw a young man I feared a little. I realized I had entered into a situation I had spent much of my young-adult and adult life avoiding: a  battle of wills, in which I must make my case and express my belief in a particular course of action.

I felt my authority questioned; I felt slightly unsure I’d earned that authority.

“I want to win,” he said.

“Well,” I said. “Winning will come.”

It was deeply strange, parroting this clichéd platitude I’d heard uttered a hundred different ways by each of the coaches I’d played for in high school.

After adding another platitude (“We have to figure out how to play for each other first”), I made my point about the drill encouraging teamwork, and that the only thing the game changed was the way each player had to become conscious of his place in the side, and how his side’s strength depended on each player playing for each of his teammates. Then I took down two of the goals, told the teams to pick an end, and sent them off on the same quest for domination I’d sent them on before.

The game was decidedly different this time around. There were subtler differences in attitude and approach. The boys played more deliberately, making sure passes to teammates’ feet rather than seeking out space to take a shot. They worked back on defense, marking their own man but also working zonally to press balls played into space. Shots were blocked. Creative movements occurred off the ball as players tried to shake their markers to receive the ball in space.

I had taken down two of the goals. End-to-end play may have influenced some of the shifts I saw. It’s also likely that in seeking out any evidence at all that might suggest the players had recovered from the senior’s outburst, I was seeing more than what actually was there.

*

We coaches talk a lot with our players about team shape — where players find themselves on the field during a stretch of play; where they ought to be in relation to the ball; offensive positioning (open, stretched, so that passing lanes open and players can move into space between and behind defenders to receive the ball) as opposed to defensive shape (compact, closed, so that spaces to pass and run through are limited and the opposing team has to play the ball back or try to go wide or else right through the heart of the defense). We talk a lot about how to shift and cover teammates who’ve gotten beat, how to transition into a wider offensive formation after winning the ball, how to advance the ball forward using a variety of short and long passes, runs into space, and positional shifts designed to confuse defenses trying to mark up.

We talk about these things because these things can be drilled, coached, and practiced. They’re the visible, tangible, tactical aspects of this game. Where to be, how to be there, when, and why — one can learn these aspects of the game. When the reasons for being here or there at a given time are made plain, and when drills and small-sided games give players chances to practice finding the right places to show for the ball, players can begin to take ownership of the tactics, find solutions quickly while on the field, and start to make the play seem “beautiful,” like the great Brazilian striker Pele said was soccer’s art.

Our boys have picked up on these tactics rather well over the past two seasons. Our losing record last year hides the fact that for much of the season we played some pretty tactically brilliant soccer.

But as I said above: losing’s tough. Some of our boys still feel those losses, those close games, the blown leads and blowouts, rather acutely.

When I pulled the senior aside at the end of practice and asked him whether we had a problem, I was thinking about last season; in particular, I had in mind the times I’dsat quietly keeping stats on missed shots, saves, assists made and goals scored by the team beating us. I have no other word to describe the way I felt: ashamed. Not exactly embarrassed; this was the kind of ashamed I felt whenever I backed down from confrontation or failed to stand up for myself, assert myself. Every time throughout my life when I let a good idea go, failed to speak up in a class, missed a chance to write, opted out of this or that adventure or opportunity.

This feeling had grown as I watched the senior walk through the passing drills I’d gotten the team doing after the seven-on-seven game. 

When I told him I wasn’t happy with his demeanor, he said he could try, if that’s what I wanted.

“What do you want?” I asked him.

He eventually picked it up, though by practice’s end he was still playing well below the speed at which he was capable of playing and receiving passes, making runs, and taking shots.

So there we were.

I’m so far removed from that moment now I have hard time recalling all that was said. I know I asked him questions, begged him to clarify and explain, to demonstrate what he meant when he suggested our system of play went against every idea he had of how to play soccer.

“Okay,” I said. “How can we fix things?”

He had ideas. Good ones. Trying to play forward too quickly, sending balls over the top of the opponents’ back line, left us stretched thin, forced our forwards and wing players into isolated positions inside or just wide of the eighteen-yard box.

Our midfielders found the ball so seldom and so far outside the box they were forced to take overly ambitious 25- and 30-yards shots on goal. He wasn’t particularly good at shooting from distance, he didn’t think. He would much rather play small passes, working the ball forward through give-and-go play that made use of the space that often opened up for us through the middle.

I urged him to consider the lessons we’d been trying to teach about such play: working the ball inside meant playing into the heart of an opponent’s defense, which meant we had to play one- and two-touch soccer. To play quickly effectively, our forwards would have to drop in and play  back-to-goal. Since the boys we had up front weren’t the kind who liked to hold up play, keeping the ball at their feet so teammates could find space further up-field, his ideas made better sense when we worked the ball wide to the wings. Our midfield could then open up to receive passes and switch the point of the attack to the opposite flank, or else look to return the ball to the wing player who could make a run in behind the defense.

But mostly I let him tell me what was bothering him. I listened as he spoke about his frustrations with younger players who weren’t in synch yet with him and some of the other upperclassmen who’d grown up playing together. His voice carried, but after I encouraged him to speak with “brutal honesty,” he did just that. It seemed to free him somehow, knowing I not only permitted but wanted him to speak candidly.

What did I see in this young man then that I hadn’t seen in his demeanor during practice?

A willingness to engage with me rather than fight me, for one.

Moreover, gone was the anger which had characterized his presence during preseason conditioning sessions. Gone was the sense that this team was his team; his stake in the team and its success hadn’t diminished, but had become tempered by something more deliberate than pride.

(Though I wasn’t there to witness it, the head coach described in great detail an open field at which this young man had both called out one of his fellow teammates for play he considered too aggressive and declared in a post-game talk that this was “his team”. According to the head coach, the teammate this young man had criticized not only made a fair, if someone strong, challenge for the ball but had played with poise and awareness decidedly lacking in the young man’s reliance on overpossession and erratic passing.)

The team’s captain came and joined us after he’d changed out of his boots and shin guards. He asked what was up; clearly he could see how agitated his friend was. After listening a while, he spoke up, echoing his teammate’s concerns.

*

To get to our cars, we had to walk across what we call the game field, where the next night we would host a solid team of underclassmen from John Glenn High School.

As we crossed the field, I gave the young man some advice which would haunt me and all my dealings with the team and with this young man in particular over the coming weeks: his feelings were a problem. We’d have to find a way around the dissatisfactions, so the team could move forward.

Maybe haunted isn’t the right word; maybe I felt cowed by the advice I’d offered him, since I had trouble following my own advice. No matter how prepared I felt to lead a practice, no matter how well I’d thought through the purpose of the session I’d planned and knew why I considered the session’s goals and coaching points vital to our success on the field, at some point during each session I’d wind up questioning myself. Doubling back. Thinking: the guys don’t get it; they’re not challenged by this; they’re not getting enough fitness from this; they’re treading the same ground.

This last worry crept up more often than other concerns. For some reason, no matter how often the head coach and I discussed the importance of reintroducing concepts and giving the boys chances to hone and perfect certain technical and tactical elements of their game, I still felt too often that I’d decided to lead the boys down a well-trodden path, giving them far too little to do.

*

The John Glenn match may have been the strongest match the boys played all season — the one exception being our decisive 3-0 victory over the team which last season had come back from a 2-4 deficit to beat us 5-4, knocking us out of sectionals. 

We wound up beating John Glenn 1-0, on the strength of our midfield play. Our midfield trio, led by the young man who’d vented to me at practice the night before, broke up nearly every one of John Glenn’s attacks and created more chances than our attacking players were able to finish.

Though we failed to finish a number of scoring opportunities, our boys learned something about what it means to play connected, disciplined team soccer that night.

After the game, the head coach broke the huddle by recommending the senior as player of the game.

To see the young man’s expression did so much to lift the spirits of players and coaches alike. I remarked to the head coach, after we’d put away the gear and killed the field lights, that I couldn’t remember ever seeing such a wide-eyed, open-mouthed, smiling expression of pure excitement — pure joy — on the young man’s face. 

The head coach thought he’d taken the young man by surprise. I agreed. I read his reaction as equal parts joy and surprise — he’d played the game of his life, and I think being acknowledged sealed that for him.

I also think he started to believe in himself and in his teammates and coaches a little more, as well.

I’ve been angry before: angry at others who seem blind to what seems the right choice, the clear path, the obvious solution to everyone’s biggest problem; angry at myself for some form of blindness I’d been too lazy or biased to reject. Angry the way this young man had been angry after the loss.

When I came home the night before the John Glen match, sat on the floor, and discussed with my wife the ways I’d handled the young man’s pre- and post-practice displays of insolence and brazenness, I felt the first faint stabs of the admixture of shame, pride, humility, and joy I’d come to know well as the season progressed. I hoped I’d handled the situation well, but I feared I’d given away too much of my own authority to the young man’s dissatisfaction during practice.

Whether or not I sacrificed my authority, I’ll never forget the look on the young man’s face after the John Glenn match.

Joy. Belief. Satisfaction.

As I write now, reflecting on the season as a whole but in particular on this young man’s growth in practice, I have to conclude that helping players find a groove occasionally requires that coaches let go. Listen. Give players chances to talk about how they see things.

We coaches would occasionally revisit theJohn Glenn match, discussing what all could possibly have changed for the young man between the harsh 0-2 loss and the stellar 1-0 win.

My belief was that the young man had finally felt heard, listened to. He’d been given a chance to unburden himself of all the negative feelings, criticisms, gripes, and dissatisfaction; once he’d gotten all that stuff out — aired his grievances — he’d been able to settle down and take command of the team.

*

I’m reminded, as I write of this young man and the practice during which he and I butted heads, of the phone calls I’d fielded, as a junior and senior in high school, from my alma mater’s new varsity soccer coach, who had inherited a weak program and was desperate to add young men to his team’s dwindling roster. 

During each of our conversations — there may have been three or four of them — he made me no promises of a starting spot or even a place on the varsity team. (I have to say that I seriously doubt, had I decided to play, that I would have contributed; I hadn’t seriously exercised in months, and was courting a serious nicotine addiction, as well as a no-can-do attitude that would haunt me through my first few semesters — hell, my first few years — of college.) 

What he did do was suggest I ought to give it a shot. I had played my freshman year, and done well. He thought I might enjoy it again, if I gave it a chance. It meant a lot to him to play. Gave him a lot.

At the time, I pitied this coach; it seemed to me he was begging.

It didn’t occur to me what it meant that he had not promised me a sp0t on varsity. It also hadn’t occurred to me that I should value his efforts to reach out to me. 

He hadn’t been begging; he’d wanted me to take the chance he was offering me to earn whatever gifts soccer had granted him.

I can’t say for sure whether this is true. But as a coach myself, I believe he understood that part of his role was to facilitate the ways the game of soccer humbled then strengthened the young men and women who gave their time, sweat, and hearts to learning to play.

Despite the many flaws in my performance as a coach this season, I’ve come to understand that as a coach I’ve been granted the responsibility to facilitate my players’ personal growth. Doing this sometimes requires vulnerability — showing players that you’ve played the game, studied how it’s played, worked with other coaches and players find drills and games and scenarios that challenge and instruct but also engage and recruit players to feel a part of a team capable of working hard for each other.

I thought long and hard about how to recommend this young man to the applications review boards at the universities to which he recently applied. Though he may have kept quiet until I confronted him about his feelings on the team and our play, he was rather forthcoming about his interests and his personal, professional, and academic goals. I read some of his writing, and knew about his interest in studying medicine and conducting research.

Recommending such a driven young man might almost have taken care of itself–I could’ve simply slapped down a list of his accomplishments and claimed him to be a strong, committed athlete. Job done.

But I’ve always told students that essays and recommendations were chances to show more than what comes standard on your high school transcript or gets printed on your application forms. In these other genres, you’re granted the opportunity to share a little about yourself, about who you are and how you came to be that way; to tell your story in vivid detail; to show yourself engaged in a project, confronting a challenge, or grappling with some aspect of your social or cultural identities. Recommenders are granted a similar opportunity to speak to a student’s intangibles, to describe his or her character through shared experiences.

Tell them a story only you can tell, I say to students. Share an experience of your truth, grounded in cold, hard reality: concrete details, events recounted as narratives, scenes in which something happens and something changes, for you or those closest to you.

Like any good English teacher who knows how important it is to practice what one preaches, I produced the following, which became part of the final letter I submitted to the review boards on behalf of this challenging, capable young man:

A few weeks ago, the boys’ season ended after a 0-3 loss to a league rival. Our seniors knew going in that the match might be their last; the loss nonetheless deeply affected each young man, especially S—. What struck me most about the way S— handled the loss was how strongly his performance echoed his post-game remarks to his teammates. Up until the final whistle, S— encouraged his teammates, and continued to fight for possession of the ball even as it became clear a win was beyond reach. When after the match S— claimed it had been his honor to play with such a connected bunch of guys – he’d even gone so far as call his teammates “brothers” – no one doubted his sincerity. 

One final story: the soccer team had been without a convincing huddle chant until S— came to practice one afternoon with a five gallon bucket and a drum mallet. This past Friday, at the last home football game of the year, I saw S— lead the entire student section in the same huddle chant he’d devised for our soccer team. A few weeks before, he’d led a group of young players the varsity boys help coach in the chant. This chant may come to symbolize S—s legacy to our soccer program, but it also speaks volumes to the passion this young man brings to his commitments. Because of this passion, and all the other strengths of character he possesses, I know S— will leave a lasting, positive legacy wherever he goes. I recommend him without reservation.

Image credit: Daniel Roizer via Unsplash

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Dwordslayer says:

    You may have lost the game, but your team won the bigger battle. Next time, they will be ready. Thanks for sharing this. Everyone wants to win…and for many if losing helps you gain something positive you won.
    Will refer to this for a long time.
    Thanks for sharing

    1. Donna-Luisa: thank you so much for this. I hope you’ll forgive me the late reply. I was, and still am, floored to know the piece touched you so deeply. Honored, too, to know you’ll find use for it in the future. You’re a fine writer yourself, so I’m sure you know what it means to receive such praise.

      I hope you’re well. Best to you and yours this holiday season.

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