Monday, May 01, 2006

Coaching kids sports

I am writing a bunch of stuff for the Insider's Guide to Beijing. Many of them are basically rewrites of my columns, but here is an original piece of work. I'm not really sure how much I like it.

I have always found sports to be a great icebreaker and a terrific social lubricant and equalizer. So it’s not surprising that coaching my kids in Sports Beijing soccer and baseball programs proved to be a central component of my family’s first year in China. Within the first two weeks we arrived here in the summer of ’05, we managed to get our two boys signed up for soccer with me coaching them both. The Saturday mornings on the WAB soccer pitches quickly became an important social outlet for our entire family.

Jacob, then 7, became close with several teammates who were schoolmates but not classmates. Eli, 5, bonded with neighbors and classmates. And my wife and I met a host of fellow freshmen as well as veteran expats who helped show us the ropes of life in Beijing. We all took some big steps towards feeling rooted. Suddenly my presence in Beijing was of significance to at least 15 people not related to me. That had a surprisingly large impact on my psyche.

Coaching kids sports in Beijing isn’t really that different from doing so in America or anywhere else. The biggest difference here from the U.S. is the prevalence of European kids and their dads, grown men who actually understand the sport of soccer. Back home, many of us coaches are learning the game as we go, having grown up playing baseball, basketball and football. The talent level of some of the little Euro kids groomed by these dads has blown me away.

The other big difference is that your charges may or may not speak English -- or Chinese. Just the other day, I was faced with a rampaging 5-year-old with terrific energy and abundant skills but a maddening habit of dribbling within five feet of the goal then picking up the ball. No amount of “no hands” in English or Chinese (via my co-coach) wiped the smile off his face or made him stop. He only spoke Korean and his parents were nowhere to be seen.

That was just one of many such comical moments. There were also the two little Chinese cousins who didn’t really speak English and had a habit of vanishing mid-game, only to reappear after they had been replaced, causing opposing coaches to complain we had too many players on the field. Or the team with 9 or 10 kids banging into each other while our seven ran around them and scored goals, and the coach who explained he wasn’t subbing because the prior week some parents had screamed at him for keeping their kids on the sidelines. Anyone who can’t see the humor in these kinds of situations shouldn’t be allowed to coach children anywhere in the world.