I returned the other evening from one of those fatherhood experiences that stays with you forever I am sure. We attended the Gunn-Baldursson (ironically- Gunn, no relation) Memorial Tournament in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. I have been to this tournament as a coach for my kids’ teams for the past 4 or 5 years. This year was different as I had passed over my coaching duties to another passionate community coach, determined to give the girls a great weekend. I enjoyed every moment, sitting in my $15 chair baking in the sun but I also took away some lessons I believe will stick. As a coach, I had a lot of memories from this tournament, but I think the most important lessons came when I moved to the other side of the field.
As a youth soccer coach, there is pressure to win. Parents and kids want to win. Success is determined by many by the score on the game sheet and the wins-losses at the end of the year. I lived by this the last 16 years as a coach and I thought this was the most important thing. I agonized over line combinations, shapes for our team (4-4-2? 4-3-3?). I woke up in the middle of the night considering who should go in goal. I thought about parents and their reaction and I considered how a losing record would reflect on me as a coach. I yelled at kids, I played some more than others and I am not confident all kids I have coached had the best experience. This weekend, it hit me…hard, sitting on the sidelines.
For 99% of our kids, the scores, the wins, the titles will mean nothing in 20 years. I watch women’s 7-aside play and I challenge that any of them can recall how they placed in grade 8 at their club tournaments. I know they don’t recall how many goals they scored or how many times they beat the best team. What they will recall is the names of most of the kids on the team. They remember the Super 8 they stayed at, they remember the ice cream, the sun, the pool and they might remember the supportive coaches and parents.
How can we make the most important thing the most important thing? This weekend, I saw a girl miss the goal in a shootout and several players run to her support as she broke out in tears. This affected me. We think about skill as dribbling, shooting, scoring, defending. Should we not point out empathy and sportsmanship of those girls who run to support the losing keeper? Should we not call out and endorse the player who sits out much of the game but cheers relentlessly on the sidelines in support of a team goal? These skills are going to have a greater impact on their families and communities than sniping the winning goal in the bronze medal game.
We need to get real with ourselves. My girls are a statistical long-shot on playing for Team Canada or Team Nova Scotia. I plan on changing my focus. What would happen if I treated sport as a means of supporting their development as young women and future leaders rather than potential elite athletes? What would happen if we treated all the kids on the field with respect? What would happen if we treated our young officials and young coaches with admiration, appreciation and respect for developing our kids? What would happen if we stopped yelling at the 14 year old reffing an Under 12 soccer game? I think I know the answer and I know you do.
I left the field a different father this weekend. After the first game, we got in the truck and I said “you need to be in better position when the ball is played forward”. The second game, I said a little less. The third game, I started the truck and said “great game”. The last game, I started the truck, put it in drive and said “I’m proud of you and you must be exhausted. I will stop for some ice cream.”
I can’t get back the past 16 years of coaching mistakes but I can start a new chapter on the other side of the field.