One by one eighteen sixth- and seventh-grade boys entered the gym. They were barely able to make eye contact with me, much less each other. I extended my hand to each as he arrived and introduced myself, asking each to find a soccer ball and kick it around until practice started.
As each boy sullenly tossed his sports bag on the gymnasium floor and began to kick a soccer ball, I could detect a lot of negative energy. From talking with their mothers, some of their fathers, and their previous soccer coaches, I knew how embarrassed most of them were: embarrassed that they had been cut from the travel soccer program in our town because there were more than enough "good" players to field three teams but not enough boys or coaches to field a fourth team; embarrassed that their coach was a mother.
The men who had coached them in the past and the age director of the soccer club had tried their best to dissuade me from coaching. In classic gender-stereotyping fashion, they told me not to expect to win any games. Some of the boys have attention issues, they said; several chronically misbehave. Some supposedly lacked “talent” or were too slow to qualify for travel soccer (as if one could predict at their age what kind of athletes they would grow up to be). So-and-so’s mother is a pain-in-the-you-know-what and will make your life miserable.
To make matters worse, some of the parents, once they learned that I was to be the coach, immediately challenged my ability as a 43-year-old mother to coach a team of 12-year-old boys. One father had called to tell me his son was going to sit out the season rather than play for me! “He deserves better. He deserves a top-level coach.” he said. Most told me not to be surprised if their son quit after the first few practices. He is angry and embarrassed to be on a team of also-rans, especially one coached by a mother, they told me. The only glimmer of hope they gave me was that their sons loved soccer, and that they knew that they had the potential to be good players.
Strengthening my resolve
Instead of scaring me off, however, all the negativity and sexist attitudes simply strengthened my resolve to turn what everyone expected to be a disastrous season into something special; to give this group of outcasts and misfits a season to remember; to give them a reason to keep playing soccer by making it fun again; to show them the very best that sport had to offer; to teach them lessons through sports that would enrich the rest of their lives.
After letting them play for twenty minutes (as the mother of three energetic twelve-year-old boys I had become an expert on the need for boys this age to burn off steam), their free play had turned into a frenetic game of dodge ball. I shouted out for the boys to take a break, grab their snacks and find a seat in the bleachers.
Once they sat down, I introduced myself. Before I had begun explaining my coaching philosophy, expectations and goals for the upcoming season, Todd blurted out the question that seemed to be on most of their minds: “Why don’t we have a man for a coach?” Instead of answering, I suggested that they eat their snacks and drink their water while I did the talking, after which I would answer their questions.
No such luck. They bombarded me with questions. Finally, Jared insisted that I answer his question: “Why are you coaching us? What do you know? You are a girl.”
After taking a couple of deep breaths, I began again. I had not scripted what I was going to say in advance. Instead I spoke from the heart. “Most of you know that a month ago, you didn’t have a team to play on. I was the one who asked the men running the program to give you a chance to play. When they told me that no one had volunteered to coach a Division Four team, I told them I would find one with a soccer license to coach you; one who was an expert on eleven- and twelve-year old boys like you; and one who loves sports as much as do each of you.
The team was finally quiet.
As hard as I tried, I told them, I couldn’t find anyone with the credentials, the time, or the love of the game of soccer to be the coach as much as me. “So, guys, I am your coach.”
I went on to tell them that during the upcoming season they would learn a lot about soccer and teamwork; that, above all else, they would not only have fun but, by the end of the season, they would be holding their heads up high.
The rest, as they say, was history. A group of angry boys with attention, aggression, communication and self-esteem issues became:
- a group of boys who respected themselves, each other, and me;
- a group of boys able to effectively communicate with each other and me;
- a team that held its own in scrimmages against the town’s Division I and II U12 teams;
- a team awarded a trophy for sportsmanship at a Memorial Day tournament;
- a team that went undefeated until the semi-final of the league’s post-season tournament; and, ultimately,
- a team I was invited to take to a sportsmanship tournament in St. Andrews, Scotland.
One parent later told me that I was the best coach her son had ever had. The age director of the soccer club said he had never seen a team play together so well as a team.
It was my “dream team.” I took my wish list of what I felt made a good coach, and what I felt was important to teach boys on the cusp of puberty, and made them come true. I gave them a safe, nurturing environment in which to do what boys their age want to do most: play, burn off steam, feel safe (at every practice or game I told them I only had one rule: There will be absolutely no teasing or bullying) and have fun.
By the end of the season, I came to realize that essential to the team’s successful season – success I measured not so much in the wins and lone loss but in the physical and emotional growth of the players – were my hard-wired instincts as a mother to nurture, encourage emotional openness, value fair play, cooperation and connectedness, and doing one’s best as much, if not more, than winning, and to provide boys a healthy outlet for their aggression and competitiveness.
It was simply a joy to see outdated gender stereotypes and the old boy network crumble, even if just a little bit, and to experience the power I had as a woman, by refusing to take no for an answer, to change my little corner of the world of youth sports.
And, oh, by the way: a couple of those boys ending playing high school varsity soccer.
Brooke de Lench is the Founder and Publisher of MomsTeam.com, author of HOME TEAM ADVANTAGE: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (Harper Collins) from which this article is adapted, and producer/director of the new PBS documentary, "The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer."