July 10, 2009

coaching myself

My wife would say I watch a lot of soccer on TV. But the first 25 minutes was all I could stomach of last night's Mexico vs Panama game in the Gold Cup.

The game was important for both teams; the loser would be in a bad position for advancing to the knockout stage. In addition, Mexico are under serious pressure to display some quality after poor showings in recent tournaments and falling to 4th in their six-team world cup qualifying group. I sat down with my DVR and high expectations for an interesting and spirited game.

What I saw, though, was more like a couple of preschoolers fighting over toys. Early on, the Mexican captain was booked for impertinence when he needlessly carried the ball away from the site of a foul, then flipped it over the heads of the Panama players. I say kudos to the Ref for showing him the yellow card. The next ten minutes was filled with players from both sides--mostly the Mexicans--whining at the ref and arguing every whistle (and most non-whistles), asking for bookings, and collapsing in indignant heaps of fake agony.

There were a few moments of very good soccer, but they were hard to pick out amid all the preschooler behavior.

And it's the lack of that kind of thing (in general) that I like about the American team. They'll complain about calls occasionally--every player does from time to time--but unless something is truly outrageous, they let it go and focus on playing the game. There's a respect for the game, the honest effort, that kind of behavior shows. The opposite, as demonstrated by Mexico and Panama, illustrates a lack of respect and a selfish petulance that is unbecoming.

I think about things like this a lot because I take my role as a youth coach very seriously. I love the game of soccer--very few games are simpler or more elegant when played well, and it's the ultimate accessible game. You don't need to be 6 foot 10 or 300 pounds to do well. You don't need a 3.4 time in the 40. When I coach kids, I want them to love it, too. But to love something is also to respect it, and to honor it.

I ranted here last year about a game my kids played. The opposing coach taught them to play dirty in order to win. Their dirty play sucked the fun out of the game, which they won. When we beat them in the tournament rematch, it wasn't so much fun as gratifying revenge. We lost the tournament final to a good, well-coached team. That loss was far more fun than our win over the dirty team. I think that's true both as a coach and as a player.

Twelve years ago, I joined an over-30 league after not playing since I was 12. I look back now and realize how frequently I whined about bad refereeing my first few years in the league. I understand the passion of the moment that underlies such bad behavior, but I've overcome that now (for the most part). Coaching helped me see my own behavior on the field and modify it. Even though the kids on my team never watch me play, I still feel I should model the behavior I'm trying to coach.


jjdebenedictis said...

This is a thoughtful and interesting post, PJD. Thanks for it!

The way you felt about the Mexico-Panama game is how I often feel about the Canadian House of Parliment. I find myself thinking something along the lines of: Why are you guys heckling each other like four-year-olds? You're supposed to be governing our nation. Grow the f*** up and do your jobs!

Stephen Parrish said...

Ditto what JJ said.

I live in Germany and follow European football (soccer) almost as closely as the Europeans do. You're right, it's an elegant, accessible sport. When I first arrived in 1981 players would roll and tumble for ten meters if an opponent so much as looked at them sideways. But such "indignant heaps of fake agony," as you put it, stopped when fans grew tired of them.

The American national team keeps getting better. Their performance during the recent Confederations Cup was spectacular. I can't wait for the World Cup next year. The last time Germany won, it was pandemonium. Hell, it's pandemonium whenever they win a game; my town looks like a war zone afterwards. The Americans have a shot this time around, and the whole world knows it.

Anonymous said...

I read some non poetry post on your blog for the first time .. but i really liked the point you brought in notice here ! playing dirty does take the fun out of game !

PJD said...

Jen, LOL on Parliament. Or rather, how sad. People have so much opportunity to get so much done, and they choose instead to bicker. At least the US Congress does not get caught up in frivolous things like steroid use in baseball or college football playoff systems.

Stephen, I am not so sure the Americans really have a shot at winning the World Cup. A lot of planets would have to align for that to happen. It is, however, within the realm of possibility, tonight's stinker against Haiti notwithstanding. The problem with the US men is depth. There is quality, but there is not quite enough depth to cover for injuries, suspensions, or fitness levels. We shall see. It's good to see the "C" team get to play now. The experience will help to build depth. Six players got their first caps in today's game.

lostmermaid, thanks! I think that what cheaters don't realize is how dirty play takes the fun out of the game for everyone--the opponent, the spectators... even themselves. People who are so wound up in winning never fully experience the true joy of play, and I feel sad for them that they miss out. I think a youth coach's job is far less about winning (though that's important) than it is about the experience for the kids, character development, and fun.

Robin B. said...

If the world worked in the elegantly simple and honorable way you describe, we'd all be a helluva lot better off. Unfortunately, there will always be whiny-assed screamers and embeciles around - but hopefully, there will ALSO always be respectful and thoughtful people around, as counter-balances.