One by one, eighteen sixth- and seventh-grade boys entered the gym, barely making eye contact with me or one another. I extended my hand to each as he arrived, and introduced myself. I asked each to find a soccer ball and kick it around until practice started.
As the boys sullenly tossed their sports bag on the gymnasium floor and began to kick the soccer balls, I detected 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 to have been cut from the travel soccer program in our town because they weren't offered a spot on one of the top three teams, embarrassed because there were supposedly not enough boys or a coach to field a fourth team, and embarrassed that their coach was a mother.
Past coaches and the director of the soccer club had tried their best to dissuade me from coaching. "Don't expect to win any games," they said. To make matters worse, some of the parents, once they learned that I was to be the coach, immediately challenged my ability as a forty-three-year-old mother to coach a team of twelve year olds.
One father had actually 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," the father said. Most told me not to be surprised if their son quit after the first few practices. The only glimmer of hope they gave me was that their sons loved soccer, and that they thought that they had the potential to be good players.
Strengthening my resolve
Instead of scaring me off, however, all the negativity simply strengthened my resolve to turn what everyone expected to be a disastrous season into something special; to give this group of outcasts 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, and to teach them lessons through sports that would enrich their lives.
Once the boys sat down, I introduced myself. Before I began 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?" Jared insisted that I answer the question: "Why are you coaching us? What do you know? You are a girl."'
After taking a couple of deep breaths, I told them that as hard as I tried, I couldn't find anyone with the credentials, the time, or as much love of the game of soccer as I did to be the coach. "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.
My dream team
The rest, as they say, is history. A group of angry boys with attention, aggression, communication, and self-esteem issues became a group of boys who respected themselves, one another, and me; a team that held its own in scrimmages against the town's Division 1 and 2 teams; a team awarded a trophy for sportsmanship at a Memorial Day tournament; a team that went undefeated until the semifinal of the league's postseason 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 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 it come true. I gave the team a safe, nurturing environment in which to do what boys their age want to do most: play, burn off steam, feal safe (at every practice or game I told them I had only one rule: absoultely 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 instincts as a mother to nurture, encourage emotional openness, value fair play, cooperation, connectedness, and doing one's best over winning, and to provide boys with a healthy outlet for their aggression and competitiveness. It was simply a joy to see the power that sport has in bringing people together.