Thursday, November 16, 2006

A Tale of Two Teams

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Soccer has been a big part of our social life since we arrived here. Within a few weeks, we had trekked down to the Lido Holiday Inn and signed up for fall soccer with Sports Beijing. Out there, we met a bunch of new friends, Jacob finding his boys and his identity and we really began to feel a part of life here. [Note.. if you start getting bored below, skip down.. because I am taking a while to set up the interesting par, where this story starts resembling the Bad News Bears.)

I signed up to coach Jacob and got paired with Scott Kronick and that’s also been a great thing. Scott is a Jewish guy from Flint. His mother was the PR lady in Roger & Me – remember her? We had actually cyber-met before we actually met and he began helping me right away with a few things. He was theguy who hooked me up with the papa John’s softball team last year and has really been a great friend and a great professional source as well. He is the head of Ogilvy PR here and has been here for 11 years, is really plugged in and knowledgeable.

We are also in sync coaching wise and doing this thing together just makes it fun. This year, his son Samuel moved form Chinese school to Dulwich and is in jacob’s class, deepening the bond.

To make a long story short, the guy who ran the league went back to the US this year and the teams were put together in a total mismash and mess. Scott and I were separated and the kids were split up all over the place. Jacob’s very good friend and uber-soccer player Lucas, who only played this season because he wanted to be with us was put on another team, with his father signed up as coach. We get the rosters a few days early and are able to switch around and Scott and I swapped back together but we lost Lucas and then it turned out his father couldn’t really coach; it was all a misunderstanding.

So the first day Lucas was there and wanted to play with us but another kid attached himself as well and Scott kept saying “Just take them, just take them.” But I was too square, and tried to get two parents to switch. But the mothers were all Korean and Chinese and didn’t understand and thought I was firing their kids. It was really awkward so I just threw up my hands and sent Lucas and Kyle off to their assigned team.

The result of all this is we had a pretty weak squad. At this stage there are starting to be some really good players. Sports Beijing has two development teams, where kids have to try out and receive great coaching two or three times a week. Most of them are Euro and their dads are real serious and these kids are getting to be really good. Some teams had three or four of them. We had none.

We had four Asian kids (Korean and Chinese) who really hadn’t played before. Two of the Korean kids were pretty good but spoke no English or Chinese and were very hard to communicate with and were really passive as well. We did gain one great new player and much to my delight, she was a girl, the only one on the team. I think it’s cool when the best player is the only girl. (It also furthers the Bad News Bear vibe.)

Anyhow, we start the season and are basically getting thumped game after game. We had a few decent games and then the kids just seemed to lose it and basically give up. We even had the fat kid who did everything put pull a Snickers bar out of his backpocket mid game.

So about a month ago, I totally changed my usually laissez faire approach. I started yelling, stalking the sidelines, screaming at kids to run, move their legs, stay focused. Scott even ran onto the field and grabbed Brian and ran with him, steering him by the shoulders. Pregame, instead of a half hour of drills I started having them race each other, just to practice sprinting and getting competitive. And it worked. It just struck me that this group really needed to be ridden a little. They responded to it, kept their heads in the game, got aggressive and confident. When I laid back, they all spaced out, except for Cameron. Jacob is pretty good but also prone to drifting away,

So a few weeks ago, I was really going crazy and my friend Greg Madden comes strolling by, walks up to me, pats me on the chest and says, ”Take it easy coach. You look like you’re about to do a Woody Hayes here.”

Thos coming from a guy who in his 20s coached pee wee football in Moon Township (Outside Pittsburgh) and had mothers pull him over and say “coach, you’re doing a great job but could you please stop calling our 8 year old sons pussies.”

We almost won that game where I was doing a Woody running up and down the sideline with the ball, losing 2-1. And the kids were having a blast. Believe me, I don’t care about winning or losing. I only care about the kids staying involved and laying themselves out a little. And the kids were all pumped after that game. They knew they had played better, tapped into something. We all left feeling good.

The next week, we played the best team in the League, who happen to be coached by my friend Steve Barnett. To make a long story short we got sued, screwed and tattooed every which way. It got to be 5-0 quickly and our kids were deflating. Steve changed everyone around, made their hot shots defenders and goalies and their scrubs kept scoring.. soon it was 7 or 8-0. In the last few minutes, Cameron stole the ball and went full field on a breakway then slammed it past the hotshot goalie, same German kid who had scored three or four goals. That was quite satisfying, e specially when during the handshake he said to her, “I let you score because you guys were losing so badly.”

I let him know that was poor sportsmanship and a lamely blatant lie to boot.

Now skip forward two weeks.. it’s the final day of the season and we play a mini tournament… four games in 90 minutes. Jacob and I were a few minute s late and he dillydallying around and zipping his coat when I was telling him he had to just take it off, so we get up there and the game is just about to kick off and we are short a player so he runs right onto the field, no warmup and the game starts.

We were playing on a small field and I could see right away that everyone was into it, attacking, playing tough D and playing with some fire in their bellies. Jacob, whom I thought was half asleep, was playing like a whirling dervish, running midfield and seeming to be everywhere. The short game ended in a 0-0 tie.

Next, we slid over to a big field and a much tougher opponent. Scott and I called the kids together and basically said, do the same thing, that was awesome. And they did. It was really tremendous. Jacob slid back to goalie and made a couple of great saves but we were pushing the ball and in control an should have scored once ort twice. Again, a 0-0 tie and a more impressive one. Whistle blows and we slide over one field – and here comes the black team, the same squad that humiliated us two weeks prior.

Now we have played 40 minutes or so of high intensity soccer and we have no subs. I know the kids are getting tired and are intimidated. We call them together. “Play the same way you have been and you can stay with anybody. When the ball is in front of you, go get it. You have as much right to it as any of them.”

We put Jacob in the middle back on defense. Last game they killed us with passing.. ball came down, everyone ran over, they swung it to a wide open kid who blew it past the goalie, often skillfully over his head. So we tell Jacob, “You stay in the middle. No one gets a free shot on the goal. And talk toy our teammates. Tell them when you need help.”

Then we walk off, the game starts and Scott and I are just hoping that we don’t get killed so bad that they lose their confidence and their buzz from what they had already accomplished. The other team is smirking, the kids are talking shit to each other about how much we suck and who’s going to get the first goal. And I see fear in my kids’ eyes. But then the ball drops and it is like an f’in Disney movie.

They respond and play with the hearts of lions. No fear.

Every time the ball comes down towards us, our kids attack them while staying in their lanes, just like we told them to. Over and over, Jacob runs up to the Euros and puts his foot out and stops them. When they do get a shot, Samuel makes one great save after another. Our guys are starting to get confident. We are going crazy, cheering, telling them to keep it up, to stay strong, to never give an inch. I can see the faces on the other kids turn to puzzlement and some anger.

One of their stars takes off down the right sideline and feeds the ball to the hotshot kid who told Cam he let her score and he is streaking towards a breakway, but Jacob pops up, puts his foot out and strips that little dude and quickly feeds his friend Ethan on the right wing and Ethan kicks it to the middle to Cameron who takes off downfield. She has a clean breakaway and she’s controlling it beautifully, takes it right towards the goal. Goalie comes way out and I think she’s got it but she shoots and the kid makes a leap to his right and a gorgeous save.

This is unbelievable now. They get a few more shots but Sameul stops them and every other time the ball comes down, our defenders stick them hard. These two kids flanking Jacob who all year have shown great passivity despite pretty good skills are coming right up in these guys mugs and stripping them and working together.

We get another breakaway, from one of the Korean kids, a great kid with an earring named Chet who speaks no English. Again, it’s stopped. But as much as the other team tries to push it, we keep stopping them. And suddenly I have tears in my eyes on the sidelines and I only barely know why. I was just so proud of these guys. These kids were playing so far over their heads, laying it out 100 percent, altogether at the same time and I am just blown away and completely moved and inspired. Steve says to me, “what a change from two weeks ago. No one has shut us out all year. Your kids are just playing great.” But I already know that.

The mother of their star comes up to me and says something similar. “I can’t root against my son but I can’t root against your team either. They are really playing beautifully.” Their elevation was really that obvious and unexpected.

Meanwhile, the game is dragging on and on.. it was supposed to be 20- minutes but we’ve now gone almost a half an hour and I see Jacob and some of the others starting to wilt a little. We’re yelling at them to suck it up for 5 more minutes. Black is on the attack, with three or four kids in front of the goal. Jacob stops them, takes the ball and sees himself boxed in, so decides to tap the ball back to the goalie to control.. but it gets by him and goes in. And this is when the fact that this is real life 8 and 9 year old kids’ soccer and not a feel-good movie kicks in.

No one but Jacob and Sam and me realized that Jacob had kicked it in. the other team is celebrating and jumping around our guys are looking bummed. We yell at them to keep it up and they do stay on top of it but in a minute the whistle blows and the game is over.

We all shake hands and then we gather them for a huddle. “I have coached two kids for four years,” I tell them. ”And I have never, ever been prouder of a team than I am of you right now.,” I mean every word of it.

The sluggish Hong Kong kid who lives his life with a Nintendo joystick in one hand and a candy bar in the other looks downcast. “But we lost.”

“I don’t care. We’ve been telling you all season we only want you to play hard and have fun and this is what we were talking about. These guys stomped us two weeks ago and today you gave them every thing they could handle.”

The mother from the other team comes over. “You guys were super,” she said. “You should be very, very proud.”

We had one more game and the kids kept it together for another 0-0 tie.

At the end , we all felt pretty great, having played four games with a an aggregate score of 1-0 and exceeded everyone’s expectations, our own included. I mean, why do we all have our kids play sports anyhow? What are we trying to accomplish? Why is it so important, so widespread? It’s to learn the value of exercise, to have fun and to learn about teamwork and hard work. These games summed it all up. It was tough season for everyone, especially a couple of the kids who really give a shit but they grew so much and last Saturday, especially in that one game, I think every player discovered an internal fifth gear they didn’t know they had. If they can all remember that it’s there, even if the memory is deep in heir brains.. well, that’s why we want our kids to play sports.