Zoey started playing recreational soccer a few weeks ago. At first, we weren’t so sure she was going to make it through the season. Our daughter is not the most athletic kid and truth be told, she’s a little flighty. But my husband and I both agree that kids learn so much from participating in team sports so we crossed our fingers and started bringing her to practice.

There are 4 teams in her age group. They practice once a week on Wednesday and have a game on Saturday morning. The first practices and games told the same story: Zoey just kind of stood there and wasn’t really into it. She liked it when she got to be the goalie during a game. I think it was because there was less running involved (girl after my own heart).

Ready to...stand there. Photo: K. Stevenson

Ready to…stand there.
Photo: K. Stevenson

Each team has two volunteer coaches. Let’s all say a prayer of thanks for the volunteers. Seriously. Without them there would be no youth sports. But just like with everything, every coach has a different style. During practices for Zoey’s team, my husband has observed that the coaches like to spend time talking strategy and rules with a dry-erase board. The girls sit and listen (or don’t listen) for a good part of the 1 ½ hour practice. Did I mention that this is a team of 6- and 7-year olds? The other teams that practice on the same field are learning the game by having dribbling races, playing keep away, and laughing a lot. They seem to be having a lot of fun. Our team looks…kinda bored. Even one of the other parents was overheard to say, “They’re STILL sitting there?”

During games, since the kids are so young, the coaches are on the field with the girls as they play, giving instructions and encouragement. During her first few games, Zoey started out on defense and was told to stay in her spot. My literal 7-year old did just that. Stayed put. She looked totally not into it. My husband and I were making bets as to how long she would last until she wanted to quit. At first, our coach coached from the sidelines, but joined the team on the field when that wasn’t working. From the sound of it, she gave very technical direction and yelled at the kids who didn’t stay in position.   I was on the sidelines, fingers crossed, cheering and hoping they would have some fun.

Oooh! Look! A bird! Photo: K. Stevenson

Oooh! Look! A bird!
Photo: K. Stevenson

A week or so ago, due to a miscommunication, our coaches weren’t there for the start of the game. A couple of quick thinking parents stepped right in and started coaching the team. These two people were amazing. Their words and their actions were encouraging and helpful. A good play or extra effort was rewarded with high-fives. The energy of the team was through the roof. They were laughing and even playing really well. There was a determination that wasn’t present before. Even Zoey was into it. She was on offense this time and actually got an assist (if there is such a thing in little kid soccer!). She was a totally different player out there-a soccer-playing butterfly coming out of her cocoon. She wanted to be there and put in excellent effort. Dad and I were so freaking proud. This was youth sports at its finest.

The coaches showed up after the second half had started so they got to see this new and improved, energized team. One of the moms that stepped in at the beginning actually stayed on the field to help out. At the end of the game, I walked up to that mom, who had high-fived my reluctant player, and thanked her. I told her that the way she interacted with my daughter turned her into a completely different player. We hugged. It was awesome.

At the next game, the coaches were there and things went back to normal.  The few kids who have more experience playing got more time on offense and the less experienced kids were stuck in the back on defense. The energy was low. It didn’t help that they were playing on a rainy, windy day. It was freezing. The best part was when that mom who helped coach the previous week brought munchkins and hot apple cider for after the game. (That mom knows what makes these kids tick!)

Great coaches can make a difference in a child’s life. They have a wonderful opportunity to shape the minds and hearts of young athletes; to instill in them the love of the game. Volunteers in sports are essential to the game. They make sacrifices so that our kids can learn to play and learn to love it. I totally agree with this letter from a volunteer coach that went viral this week. Being the wife of a long-time coach, I never take for granted the time, effort and sacrifice coaches put in for our children. In my opinion, when you volunteer with kids, especially young ones, it’s really important to teach to their level. The little ones need to learn by having fun and playing games. The strategy can come later. Here’s hopin’ that this Saturday’s game brings back some of the fun.