Smells Like Team Spirit
The Unbearable Ineptness of Being Dad
I've always liked partying more than sports. So when my wife asked me to be the assistant coach of my daughter's soccer team, I agreed. I could see myself as a misshapen, wisecracking old-timer with a whistle around his neck. Pop Warner, Casey Stengel, or Tommy Lasorda. You know - lively chatter. Butt swats. Banquet speeches. The talk show circuit. In fact, it never really dawned on me that being a coach had anything to do with sports, until I found myself alone on a playing field in South Austin, surrounded by 13 six- to eight-year-olds who wanted to play soccer.
Unfortunately, I didn't know anything about the game. Thinking back to the Sands of Iwo Jima, I decided that the first thing my daughter's soccer team needed was discipline. "All right, Bats," I shouted, calling out the team's nickname. "Time for calisthenics. Jumping jacks. Ready, begin! One, two, one, two." I began jumping up and down flapping my arms. The team members looked at me like I was nuts. Two of the boys began stuffing grass down their pants. Others giggled. One player took off running - just running away.
Maybe a different exercise would work better. "Okay, touch your toes. Ready? One, two, three." I was embarrassed when I couldn't quite reach my toes. I looked up sheepishly, only to realize that I could have been standing there buck naked and no one would have noticed. The Bats had dissolved into a squirming mass of shin pads and screaming bodies.
"Break it up, Bats," I said desperately, as I separated the players from each other and stood them up in a line. "Time for farts." This got their attention. "Ready, begin: one, pffffft, two, pfffttt, three, pfffft," I started ripping fart noises off on the palm of my hand. The team caught on. They started ripping them off. We were one, we were a team. Now all we had to do was play soccer.
The Bats liked the idea of a scrimmage. "We want to be the Rattlesnakes," said a player from one side, as they divided into groups. "Yeah, well, we're the Poisonous Rattlesnakes," said a player from the other side.
The reality of a scrimmage was a different matter. The main problem was lack of focus. One player had enormous difficulty getting his shoes on. Another player lost a shoe every time he kicked the ball. A third player spent the entire scrimmage picking dandelions along the edge of the field. When the action got stuck on one side of the field, the two defenders and the goalie on the other side got so bored that they began pounding their foreheads against the goal posts. Hard.
"Coach, coach," they yelled at me, crying and rubbing their foreheads.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"Our heads hurt."
"Maybe they hurt because you guys were pounding them against the goal posts."
"No, that's not the reason," they whimpered.
After a few more minutes, one of the smallest players walked up to me. "Coach," he panted. "I'm getting dehydwated." I called a water break. Or, should I say, a water fight. The Bats spilled, splashed, and spit water on each other. The field looked like Max Yasgur's farm after Woodstock. "Clean up this mess," I ordered. The Bats just giggled.
"Okay, I've had it," I said in my deepest, most terrifying voice. "Whoever doesn't behave has to leave the field and go back to the schoolyard." The team heaved a sigh of relief and began to leave the field en masse. What could I do? What leverage did I have? "Okay," I said. "If you leave the field I will tell your parents that you are too immature to play soccer."
That stuck. I had become the Squealer Coach. But I didn't care. I didn't have salary cuts to use as leverage. All I had was the threat of being an athletic stool pigeon.
My wife took charge of the Bats during the games, thank god. As they kicked the ball around prior to the season opener she said, "They look pretty good." I just hoped that our opponents did fart calisthenics.
They didn't. They must have done knuckle push-ups. Kick, pass, shoot, score. Kick, pass, shoot, score. The proud parents of our team were in shock. We were getting killed. Desperate, the parents let out a cheer when one of the Bats actually kicked the ball. This did more harm than good. The Bats on the field began to cheer, and forgot that the game was still going on. The other team struck. Kick, pass, shoot, score.
The next week's game was even worse. Our opponents were surgical. They sliced, diced, and julienned our defense. When the score approached the double figures, I felt the parents on our team beginning to turn on the coaching staff. "Our kids aren't this bad," I sensed them thinking. "It must be the coach's fault." As the score swelled, the tension increased. Several of the parents started trying to coach the team from the sidelines. Revolution was at hand. Then, redemption.
The other team kicked the ball from midfield. It dribbled towards our goal. The parents fell silent, intently watching the inexorable progress of the black-and-white sphere. Our goalie painstakingly bent down and extended his arms. The ball approached, barely moving down the field. The entire scene took on the sparkling clarity of a near-death experience. Ever so slowly, ever so gently, the ball rolled right through the goalie's legs and came to a stop on the scoring side of the goal line.
Everyone sighed in unison, and the pressure was off. The parents realized that all of us - parents, coaches, and kids - had to work together if we were going to survive the season. I was inspired to work harder as coach and cheerleader. After the game, I gave the Bats something to shoot for. "Our goal is a goal," I said.
No matter what happened at practice, the Bats kept their eyes on the prize. "What's our goal?" I yelled at the team when eight of them refused to climb down out of a cedar tree. "A goal," they yelled back.
The parents got into the swing of anarchic soccer. The snacks improved, an important indicator of team support. The players ran through the game-ending congratulatory tunnel we made with our arms with more and more giggles and laughter. By the second-to-last game of the season, we had so much to celebrate it was almost anticlimactic when we actually scored a goal. "Do you think we can win the last game, coach?" one of our players asked me. "I've got a feeling we might," I replied.
My intuition proved to be correct. Only five players from the other team showed. We won the game by default. "We did it, we won," I proudly told the team. They were confused but happy. Most of all, they were all fired up to play. They didn't really care that they'd already won, they didn't even care which team they played for. They just wanted to play.
It was the best game of the season, a fiercely fought contest of Bats playing mostly Bats. My daughter bombarded the goal with hard shots. Our goalie jumped, dived, and stretched to make incredible saves. I couldn't believe it. The parents couldn't believe it. The Bats were playing like something out of a Miller Lite ad. We scored goals, two of them. Against ourselves. What a game.
And what a season. We lost every game and even defeated ourselves. But it didn't matter. We managed to reach our goal. We did indeed score a goal. And the kids actually had learned something. They learned to like sports.
As for me, I still prefer partying. But I have a newfound respect for Tommy Lasorda and all the other dads and moms who dedicate their weekends to lively chatter, scraped knees, and swats on the butt. Someday, perhaps in the relatively distant future, I might even pick up the old whistle once again, hang it around my neck, and lead another group of misbehaving athletes in a round of fart calisthenics.n