Note: Today’s blog is a little longer read than normal but it comes straight from the heart.
At the age of 23, and after already having coached for six years, I left home to pursue better coaching opportunities. Opportunities that my hometown I knew just could not provide. Those first couple of summers away from home were extremely hard. I was trying to make a mark in a new coaching community while also trying to make enough money to live for the summer and at the same time also to help pay for university.
Like most university students, meagre was probably a good word to describe what life was like for me at the time. In particular as it related to coaching, I had no car and relied on assistant coaches/parents to help get me too and from practices and games and tournaments. One parent I remember offered plenty of help during one of those summers away from home. Of particular interest was an out of town tournament that he offered to drive me to. When he picked me up, he’d bought me chips, pop and candy for the trip. As a treat for me at that time was typically Hamburger Helper on a Saturday night, I graciously accepted the junk food. It felt nice to have someone else looking after you and looking out for you.
Later that season, his twin daughters who were on the team weren’t playing as much as he’d expected. We just happened to be at another out of town tournament when he confronted me about that topic. It was clear that he had had enough with me and was going to let me know that which he did in front of the rest of the parents and players. I still remember his words to this day:
“How can you do this after all I’ve done for you?”
It was on that day that I learned the hard way that in coaching, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Over the years, as both a team coach and a club technical director, I’ve been very cautious of my relationship with parents. I definitely keep my distance. The offers from parents have always been present. Would you like a coffee? A drive? If you ever need a babysitter for your son, we’d be happy to help. Here, let me pick up your lunch bill for you.
A few years back, I can remember working as club technical director with this one particular player. I’ll call her Ally. The first time I saw her was at some free goalkeeper training I was putting on for the club’s younger players. She was 10. She was a bit chubby – call it baby fat – and not very athletic. She and her best friend at the time (let’s call her Carla) would come every Saturday morning for this free training. They enjoyed themselves but honestly were not very good, even though they were part of the club’s competitive program for their age group.
The next spring Ally and Carla both tried out for their age groups competitive teams. There were three levels of teams because there were so many players and these two particular girls had both been together on the middle or ‘B’ team the summer before when I’d first met them. After the selection process, they had both only managed to get picked for the ‘C’ team.
The response from Carla’s family was to move their daughter out of our club to another club. The response of Ally and her family was to stay put and accept the offer that was presented to them. As it turns out, a player that had been offered a spot on the ‘B’ team that season turned it down. According to the tryout scores, Ally was the next in line to be offered a spot. She and her family accepted.
As it happened, I ended up taking over the head coaching duties of that team – a team that I would then continue to coach for the next three years (even though I was the club’s technical director). This player worked hard and so did her family. They helped with the management of the team. They took the nets to every home game and both put them up and took them down. They had two other younger children as well who were also in soccer so needless to say they spent their summers at the field with their kids.
The next spring, Ally tried again for the ‘A’ team and did not make it. While others complained and griped about the tryout process, or the selection of players, Ally and her family continued to honour the same mindset – keep your head down and work hard. It was refreshing to me. This family was restoring my faith and trust that I had lost over a decade earlier at that tournament.
Another spring came and again Ally tried for the ‘A’ team. This time, after four consecutive years of trying and failing, she made it. Even though I continued to coach the ‘B’ team at that age level, Ally and her family stayed in close contact with that team as well as continued to staunchly support all my decisions and technical directions for the club as a whole. It was great. I remember thinking to myself that this was the one family who through good times and bad I was able to trust as seeing that the game itself was bigger than their daughter and while unpopular decisions were sometimes made, hard work and focus would bring about positive results.
I had finally learned to let down my guard once more.
The next spring, my final year at that club, Ally did not make the ‘A’ team. There was a new coach in place and this individual had rationale for not selecting her and justification for selecting another instead. It would be fair to say that Ally didn’t have the best set of tryouts and this coach was coming to the club from outside so didn’t know any of the players. It was not a good situation.
As the TD, I met with each of the head coaches during their final player selections and acted as devil’s advocate to make sure that each of their last few selections – the ones where the most controversy always lay – were well thought out. I did my very best to argue for Ally’s inclusion on the ‘A’ team but the coach wouldn’t have it. Short of over stepping my boundaries as TD and overturning his decision, there was nothing more I could do.
The news did not go over well with Ally and her family. Both the mother and the father talked to me at length on the phone and in emails about it. They met with me face to face along with Ally. I did my best to explain the situation. They were angry and would not have any of it. I’d failed them and let them down. With that, the relationship ended. Ally went to another club and the family pulled their two younger daughters from the club as well. This also happened to be my final year at the club. At my send-off celebration later that year, many of the players and their parents who’d I’worked with in Ally’s age group over the years were there. Ally and her parents were not.
Again, I was reminded that there’s no such thing as a free lunch in coaching. That experience ended up being far harder to live through then the first over a decade earlier. It sent me back to absolute reset where once more I did not know what to think or who to trust.
There is, you may be happy to know, a lighter chapter to add in order to finish this story off. Almost three years ago I got married and became a dad. I went back to visit that club where I had worked for a number of years in order to celebrate my marriage and the birth of my son. Many coaches, players and parents came including Ally and her mother. This was a approximately two years after they had decided to walk away. They seemed genuinely happy for me. It was as if the last two years had ceased to exist. Things almost felt normal. I say almost because I was still confused about what to make of it all.
Well wishers at the celebration were encouraged to fill out a card to add to a memory box that my wife and I had to mark the experience. While changing a few of the details to protect those involved in this story, I’d like to share with you what Ally wrote:
Come back! It’s not the same without you! You were the best coach I had. you taught me so much and one of those things was to never give up. I remember when we dyed your hair pink after won a game in that league cup competition! Or when we won that tournament in Sommerville and you had faith in us the entire time (although we played a level up!). You always motivated me and made me love the game more than I already did! I wanted to thank you for always being there for me and always having faith in me. I hope one day I can play on the Canadian Women’s National team. I still remember when you gave us a speech about making it to the top and how you brought in a national team player to talk to us. I still have that book of quotes you gave us once at our pre-season meeting and I’ve hung them on my wall as words of inspiration. I’m so happy for you.
To be a great coach you have to trust. You have to open yourself up in ways that most normal adults would never choose to do. You have to bravely accept the consequences of that culpability which can, in my experiences, often means getting let down or hurt in some way. And then, if that wasn’t enough, you need to pick yourself up and provide the exact same level of care and duty all over again. I can do that but it’s the stage between getting hurt and picking yourself up again that’s always taken it’s toll on me physically, mentally and emotionally.
I don’t know how much faith I can or should put in the melodramatic comments of a 16-year-old-girl. It is nice, however, to think that out of what seemed like a disaster at the time came some hope. A restoration of faith for me I suppose. Now, I only wish that those past multiple instances of hope echoed louder in my head than the few but unforgettable instances of disaster.
Next post Sunday, January 18th.