Our do-it-yourself season of soccer
My daughter's legs have grown so long that people notice. She wants to put them to use; she wants to run cross-country, take two stairs at a time, and, most of all, play soccer.
"Moooooom," she wails on the phone at the school office, "we can't have a soccer team, we don't have a coach!"
"I'll call you back," I say, stalling for time to think of an excuse not to volunteer. There are 80 students in the school; surely one other parent would like to coach.
Up here, on an island in Maine, we do things ourselves: blueberry, cranberry, lobster, crab, wreath, clam, worm, and wrinkle. I write, teach, volunteer - there's no way I can volunteer to coach soccer, a sport I have never played. The only thing I know about soccer is from 20 years ago when I played field hockey. The positions are somewhat the same, aren't they?
"First practice is on Monday," I tell the school secretary, and my daughter cheers in the background.
I'm supposed to be putting seaweed on the fall garden, harvesting the last beans, and painting the windowsills. Instead, I'm reading soccer texts and scribbling notes.
* * *
Only one boy on the team shows signs of puberty. The other middle-school boys and girls have faces and voices so fresh, I could still call them children and get away with it. I am careful not to.
None of them are doing the stretches I have painstakingly written down and that only I am doing. They are snickering, pushing, falling down, and doing their best to stay far away from the girls.
"C'mon! Stretch!" I say. The tallest boy with dark hair, blue eyes, and lips the color I have longed to have naturally, makes comments I cannot hear. The others listen more to him than to me. "I am looking for captain material, and I am not seeing it," I say. A couple kids hop to.
"How come the girls get to do push-ups on their knees?" one boy complains, and my notes blow away in the wind.
"I don't want to run!" they all whine as I have them run backward, sideways, and sprint. "We don't like warm-ups! When can we play, just play?" they ask, walking.
"Two lines, two lines!" I shout.
"I need to use the bathroom," a sixth-grade girl says, poking me in the arm as I'm separating kids into lines, lines they cannot make. The two balls fly all over the field, more clumps of boys are rumbling than standing, and one soccer ball is permanently lost already. Parents watch the chaos from their cars.
My voice is hoarse, even my own daughter is not cooperating, and the previous coach's son is saying, "My dad used to...."
"We want to scrimmage," they keep saying as they practice passing, but kick the ball way down the field most of the time.
"Fine! Whatever!" I crumple up the drill sheet. "Please set up the goals," I ask the oldest boy.
"Why?" he says, and makes a face. And I think I'm going to kill him, so I run and do it myself. Over arguments, I divide them into two teams, and then cannot tell them apart without different shirts.
"Keep your eye on the ball, keep your positions, pass, and use the wings - the players on the outside of the field!" I insist and will insist in my sleep long after the season ends. With no discernible positions, everyone runs in a mass after the ball. They groan in unison when I stop play to remind them: "Hey, positions and pass!"
The smallest team members keep asking, like birds in a nest, "Where do I go? What team am I on?" while the bigger kids run them over, and the fullbacks chat with and insult one another. One girl bursts into tears, and stomps off the field. Two boys shove each other, one close to fury: "Just because he's in eighth grade doesn't mean he can tell a sixth-grader what to do!"
"Go home," I say, "Just go home!"
* * *
"Do the warm-up exercises, or don't play," I say sweetly. "I don't want you to get hurt." But I let them choose their own co-captains, and, like me, they pick my daughter and another cooperative kid, both of whom know how to play and will not groan if I ask them to carry the first-aid kit five yards to the bus.
Maybe it's that for 16 years of my life every fall I played a sport, and I'm pleased to be out on the field again after a two-decade absence. Maybe it's that, after two weeks, I know what position each kid can play well, I know just a little more than the kids, and I can run fast enough so they do not know I really can't.
I know that the goalie needs to be in the far corner on a corner kick, because it is easier to run toward the ball than away. I know that, for girls, it is not a penalty if they cross their hands over their chests to volley a ball. Above the deep-blue ocean that runs around us like an embrace, we practice.
"There's no reason we can't win," I tell them, "this is all we have to do...." Leaning in, they listen because, like the autumn leaves, things are falling in place.
* * *
The soccer team has never won a game. We are not even in the league, but several schools have agreed to play us. "We can do it if you keep your positions, pass, and use your wings." I have the team shout before we head onto the field of our first game: "One, two, three: Go team!"
"Cheese doodles!" the boys yell instead. This first team we play, double our number and double our size, slaughtered us last year. Our team, in mismatched outfits, had left the field downcast.
Now our team hitches up their matching sweat pants that keep falling down and goes out on the field, ready. Once the whistle blows, I forget protocol, the parents. I forget that the previous coach is watching, giving tips that maybe I should, but I'm shouting, "Great! Go! Positions!"
When the younger girls ask if they can go talk to their mothers, I say, "I can't talk, I can't talk - I'm watching the game!" I coach nonstop in the only way I know how: my own way. And our little team from the island passes, scores five times, tieing into double overtime, and then: five penalty shots each team. Our goalie, a small, agile boy, misses just one shot kicked in by a 6-foot-tall opponent. We lose by one.
"Penalty shots are torture!" I rant. "They shouldn't have them! I consider this a tie game!" We all agree and fill the bus with replays and how well we did.
If someone had handed my daughter a trained coach and perfect uniforms; if our field were lined, and the goals we'd ordered had arrived on time because we were a big school; if we had a real net bag full of firm soccer balls, then I would not have coached my daughter's team.
I would not have seen squalling, uncooperative kids grow used to me, grow used to passing and positions, and come to practice ready to stretch, ready to improve. I would never have known how great junior-high kids are. The new kid would not have saved the day several times, and the girl who cried wouldn't have had the chance to say, "Did you see how great I was?" The older boys would never have looked at me with shining eyes, as if I were right, as if we were a team in a much bigger place. The tallest kid with the dark hair and blue eyes would not have reminded me which stretches I'd left out by mistake in the warm-up.
On a lumpy field with the leaves changing and the ocean a brilliant blue, fathers haul traps and come in early for the games. Mothers put the supper on low to pick up their kids who, instead of running over to the car, say, "Can't we practice a little more?"
But like the professional I am, I say wistfully, "Your folks are here! How about tomorrow?" Then to my daughter I say, "Let's kick a little more," and we do, as the sun brings dusk.
It's a much sweeter season, having done it ourselves. You know more about the kids, yourself. Maybe you could coach again next year: The air is so clear and clean on an island in the fall just before the boats and buoys come out of the water.