Friday, October 28, 2011

Play Hard, Have Fun

Before the playoffs began during my last season as Assistant Coach of our team, I decided to try to break the hoodoo that we seemed to have going into the postseason.

At the time, all soccer in West Virginia was played in one division, and our team always faced Capital High School and George Washington, two good soccer schools several times bigger than us, in the sectional (first round) of the playoffs. Although we went in with good teams each of those seasons, we never could get over the hump and beat both in order to progress to regional play.

So before the sectional semi-final in my daughter's senior year (my last as an assistant), I decided to give the girls little slips of paper that had a theme for the playoffs that they could put in their shoes or in their shinguards to take on to the field with them to remind them about what our task was, and perhaps feel a little comfort that those of us on the sidelines were there with them in spirit.

After that first season (in which we lost in the second round) and all my years as head coach, I continued the practice with two changes: our first year of AA-A competition I decided to write a different message for each game and, in one and only one instance, I gave them all a slip before a regular season game.

I tried to hold on to those slips but over the years I lost some, and others were literally washed away by the occasional deluge (I kept them in my worn black bag that accompanied me to every game along with spare keeper gloves, spare shinguards, and my ubiquitous notebooks in which I would scratch my observations of the game and about our and the opposing players).

The ones that survived, or that I recall, I list below, more or less in chronological order. If any former players out there have or remember others, please comment or send me an email so I can add them to the list. Some are self-explanatory, some will be completely cryptic, but that's what makes it fun, I hope.

Next Game.

First time, last time, OUR time.

Play hard -- respect your opponent.

This is our first chance to make history.

We do the ordinary things better.

Anytime, anywhere. Too bad for them it's here and now.

Perfect day, perfect place -- have some fun and play hard.

Play with passion.

Make a statement.

To repeat takes character.

Be Great.

First step to a third star.

Avenge the ball!

Be the greatest.

This is what we play for.

Be smarter, play harder.

And, finally, what were always my last words after our pre-game Hail Mary:

"Play hard, Have fun."

Breaking the huddle at the 2009 State Finals --
right after my customary "Play Hard, Have Fun."

Friday, October 21, 2011

Can You Still Call Me Coach?

So, I coached my last high school soccer game last night, and I'm still not sure how I feel about it.

Not about the game, which we lost 1-0. I was disappointed with the result, but proud of the way that our little band of 15 battled to the end. I thought I was handling the result, and the end of my "second career," fairly well until I realized that I was still awake at 3 a.m., replaying the game in my head and making different decisions that could have changed the outcome of the match.

But, rather, how I feel about the simple fact that, as of today, I am an ex-coach.

I've always loved so many things about coaching. To be a part of, and lead, a team. The relationship with each and every one of the players that I've coached and the joy and at times frustration that inevitably results. The deep passion to want to succeed and help others succeed. The bond between co-coaches. The give-and-take with the skilled and smart fellow coaches that I was fortunate enough to coach against. Even, believe it or not, my relationship with many referees. Perhaps, most of all, being a teacher.

I received several awards and recognitions during my time as a coach, but two, which do not involve trophies or certificates or plaques, are the most special to me.

Receiving one of my awards, this one from the National Federation of High School Coaches' Association. My expression was unplanned, but captures my bemusement.

The first is the slip of official looking paper that I would receive from the State Board of Education certifying me as a "teacher".  When I first started coaching I never thought of myself as an educator, just another coach. But the receipt of that certificate every year struck home the point to me that I was indeed a teacher, with all the responsibility that that position entails, and I was very proud of it.

The second is simply to be called coach.

Almost every time I would call our athletic director, Bill Gillispie, he would respond to my latest request for help with an initial "Hey Coach, how's it going?" And while I always encouraged my players to call me by my first name, and almost all always did (in one variation or another) I have to admit that I was always a little tickled when they would greet me with a "Hi Coach!" rather than a "Kevin!"

I will no longer lead a team onto a field, or try to figure out what will motivate them or how to instruct them to make the most of what they are, or what they can be. But hopefully, in some way or another, I will always be worthy of the title.


Saturday, October 8, 2011

Winning and Losing

I haven't written anything about our team's current soccer season so far for several reasons. First, because I've missed a number of practices and several games due to various familial and work obligations. And, second, because I've been struggling with what to say about our team and our season.

Let's face it: it's easy to think of things to write when you're flying high (even if they're not always positive); a little tougher when you're inconsistent. Add to that the fact that I'm conscious of the possibility (although, in all likelihood, not the probability) that a current or future opponent's coach or players could read my posts and perhaps gain some insight into how to play against our team, or obtain bulletin-board material for when we do play them, and there are good reasons why I've been mum to this point.

With the regular season almost at an end, however, I've been assessing what our team, and I, have learned about ourselves this year.

The start to our season was very difficult, as we had suspected it would be. Only 13 players showed up the first day of practice and the girls had to recruit classmates just so we could have a realistic number of players. No rising ninth grade girls play soccer, so there was no infusion of talent from that class. Then, not only did we have a tough schedule, facing two AAA schools and a good Ohio team in a showcase tournament, we were missing three of our players who were not yet eligible.

Things have gotten better since that rough start and while we haven't won as many games as we have gotten used to over the past few years, or in fact in any of the years that I've been the coach, we have improved as a team and perhaps learned some lessons along the way. 

Our recent successes have meant that most of the small school teams that we will be paired with in the playoffs still refused to play us this season and as a result our schedule has still been filled for the most part with schools and programs that have several times the students and players that we do. So this season, as in the last few, we've been punching above our weight. But without that killer left hook that we had before.

Our small school brethren, however, may come to regret their decisions not to play us this year. Our team has improved on the field while being tested by many of the best teams in the state, regardless of class. While the results haven't always been what we hoped for, and while we all have never become satisfied with losing, we have learned to be pleased with the improvements in our effort and performance even in those losses. And our difficult schedule has required both players and coaches to be able to adapt to a variety of line-ups and positions in order to meet the challenges that each team has presented.

That improvement was evident today, as we battled our friendly rival University to a standstill in the first half, before eventually losing 2-0. But, for an extended period in the second half, we actually had them on their heels and played our best soccer of the season so far.

The saying goes that losing builds character. I'm not sure that's true. But I do believe that adversity reveals character and gives you the opportunity to grow, much more so than easy success does. While losing is clearly not as much fun as winning, the character building that our team has undergone this season may be exactly what we needed to ultimately be successful this season. The next two, or three, or four weeks will reveal just how much we've improved from the experience.