I became a coach just like every other mom or dad: I was volun-told. Twelve years ago, my oldest son, then four, joined a soccer team, and the team needed a coach.
That didn’t mean I didn’t take the job seriously. Weeks before our first practice, I defaulted to my past career as an investigative journalist. I pored over Soccer for Dummies. I scoured the web and watched FC Barcelona and Liverpool Academy training videos. I carefully studied a well-known Dutch youth-sports curriculum. (Soccer dads, you know the YouTube channel.) I developed plans and spreadsheets.
And so on that fateful day at Crestwood Hills Park in Los Angeles, I officially took my position as head coach of the Rattlesnakes, named after a sign near the field that said beware of rattlesnakes. Despite my preparations, I had two big things working against me. The first was that I was intimidated, maybe even scared. The last time I had anything to do with soccer, I was a ten-year-old kid on the Grasshoppers who would hide my shin guards from my coach so that I wouldn’t have to play. (Coach started bringing a spare pair for me.) And the second was that I had competition. Whoever had designed Crestwood Hills Park had inconsiderately placed an outcrop of sycamore trees, a slide, and a sandbox very close to the soccer field.
Very quickly I found myself watching some of my players climb the sycamores and others the slide, with me standing there clutching my binder and clipboard full of Dutch training drills. That’s the moment I realized that the antidote to fear is fun. The next practice, I came with activities—none of which were from the Netherlands—that focused on movement and play. The kids, for the most part, stayed on the field.
My sons are now 16 and ten. I’ve coached them for 12 years in four sports, all of which I’m woefully unqualified for, and sometimes my kids are the ones reminding me to have fun. My youngest once went half a soccer game without touching the ball only to tell me, with a huge smile on his face, that he had met the other number 7 on the opposite team and they were now friends. I can’t think of another activity that allows you to be a large part of creating and participating in that fun—to gallop down the field with them, to watch them fall in love with the game, and, most important, to share a slice of pizza at Shakey’s afterward.
There are nights that I find myself driving by the baseball field in Los Angeles where my sons played. I’ll pull into the parking lot, the lights out and no one playing. But I can see the T-ballers running the bases backward and dropping fly balls in the outfield. And then I can see the kids getting older and turning double plays. Eventually, there’s the first home run on the major-league field, the ball going over the fence and hitting the 405 San Diego Freeway. I can see and hear and smell and feel the fun. After I’ve sat there for too long, I end up having to call one of my buddies who coached with me and say, “Hey, I’m in the West L. A. parking lot and I can’t leave. Can you come get me?”
This story appears in the June 2021 issue of Men’s Health with the title Coaching Doesn’t Have to Suck.
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