“You put other people in at Forward”, one of the players on our NorthStar U14 girls team exclaimed at me as she exited the field at half-time during game #3 in the Alabama Soccer Showdown Tournament on November 14-15. She then stomped off with a scowl on her face. (From here on out I will refer to her as AG for Angry Girl). My response should have been to smile and say something like, “I am sorry you feel that way. Please try to remember that I am the coach. You can sit out for as long as you need to think about what you just said and see if you can come up with a follow up comment.” In my defense, a scarcity of substitutes and of goal keeper options sometimes clouds your thinking.
What in the world was she talking about? I knew who I had substituted in at Forward and I knew why so I had a vague idea of what she was talking about. It took the passage of some hours and a nice nap for me to really figure out the underlying situation. My subconscious mind connected the dots and I woke up feeling angry at two girls. I was angry at her and at the other girl who was clearly connected. Angry not just because of the statement but because of what followed in the second half. Angry that the very selfish and petty attitude of these two girls was quite unfair to NP and cost their teammates the opportunity to win that game and be Finalists in the tournament.
It’s probably simpler to explain if I walk you through the situation and reveal my interpretation as I go – even though some of it I didn’t figure out until hours later. First the background situation then the second half results. Following that I will give you my takeaways.
Early August and, based on dramatic increases in Covid infection rates over the summer, my likely list of girls ranging from U10 to U14 who have the experience and expected interest in a NorthStar Club Team drops from close to 30 to 9. The five younger girls I shift over to the U12 boys team (similar problem with boys and fielding a very coed team is the best we can do for the season). The four older girls I set up as ‘permanent guests’ with the Holy Rosary U14 coed team. Holy Rosary Soccer is its own program but they register through NorthStar, making sharing players very easy to do. Those four girls move through the season with that team and do fine.
Along the way I begin to get inquiries from various parents who are now becoming ready to have their girls involved. Too late on the season but maybe we can create a Tournament Team if enough girls are available to return. I explore this and identify and secure ‘commitments’ from 16. This includes bringing over three Holy Rosary girls to be guests on our NorthStar team. It also includes one brand new player. We will call her NP for the rest of this story. NP’s mom had approached me a month earlier about getting her involved. She has no previous soccer experience but has someone teaching her and is very interested. I told her our team situation and we agreed we would wait until the spring season for NP. Then this tournament team starting taking shape and I invited NP to join. I explained to her mom that she would practice with the team and just get a taste of playing in the games. Our focus would be on getting her a little experience to be more ready for the spring season.
Limited time/pressure for NP and a great opportunity just to get experience and learn. That was the plan. Then, two sisters I was counting on suddenly moved out of state. One of them was our best player. Next another strong player broke her leg (or ankle) in a freak accident in a basketball game. Then, the week of the tournament I am informed that a parent has gotten a positive for Covid so that player is quarantined. If you have been counting, that’s four players gone. Down to 12. NP will be playing more than I had planned. Saturday morning I am on the field for warm up and I receive a text that another girl is out for the day. 11 girls for the day. No subs. NP is now playing the whole game, both games. The team needs her to do that. It’s a lot to ask.
Game #1 we are a little off balance and outmatched. A couple goals against us in the first half then AG commits an own goal (ironic, but true). At half time it is something like 5-0. One of the girls (I will call her DC for ‘Disappointing Captain’ because I had named her as a captain with very opposite expectations) is fussing at NP. NP comes over to the sideline for some water at one point. I asked her if she was having fun in her first soccer game and she looks up looking like she is about to cry and says no. Katie (Assistant Coach) says encouraging words and talks to NP more. That’s when we truly get a picture of what DC was doing. We both tell her to listen to us and ignore DC. We tell her she was doing great (which truthfully, for her first soccer game ever, she really was) and to relax and just have fun. Second half we look better over all but did have a goal scored against us. AG turns around and starts fussing at the goal keeper. Really?
Game #2 we do damage control with AG and DC and challenge them to be positive leaders. We continue to encourage NP and encourage all the team to be a team, encourage, compete to their best and not focus on the score. Lo and behold this team is considerably weaker than the morning game. As tends to happen when there is less adversity, the team, even AG and DC, are more relaxed. We tie that game 1-1. Our goal scorer has emerged as our primary Forward (call her GS) and I realize that for game #3 a key strategy is finding ways to feed the ball to GS in the attacking third of the field.
Game #3 is an opponent who is in between the other two opponents. Our missing girl is
now present so we do have one sub. We are playing them close and do have scoring opportunities. But NP is a little rattled and commits two hand balls. She is playing outside Defender and I am worried she may earn a penalty kick against us. So, I pull her out. We gently talk to her then encourage her. We are leaning toward putting her in at Forward because it will get her away from the box and the danger of the PK and she is aggressive so hopefully can block the other team and help feed the ball to GS. We are considering this when GS gets hurt and needs to come out for a few minutes so in goes NP. Along the way there was one fluke play and the other team scored one but since then most of the play has been at the other end of the field. The energy was low coming off the field and it was kind of weird because we were very much in the game, only down by one and moving the ball well. Katie & I were both trying to talk them up as they came off the field.
Then, “You put other people in at Forward.” ‘Other People’ apparently referred to NP. One little important detail, DC primarily plays center back but on Saturday had asked to be able to play Forward some. I said maybe, depended on the situation in the game. She asked again before the game on Sunday. It seems that DC and AG had been talking (they are long-standing friends). In their 13 year-old minds I had slighted DC but putting NP in at Forward instead of her. Are you serious? Being only vaguely aware of the psychology at that moment, I put both AG and DC back in for the second half. GS was fine and ready to go back in. So I put NP in at Forward with her (getting her away from the danger zone and encouraging her to interrupt the other team’s progress and pass the ball over to GS or to the girls on the outside Wings). AG rotated into Goal Keeper and DC stayed at Center Defender. Immediately disaster hit us. We could no longer effectively make a goal kick. I have a picture of DC standing on the field with her arms and legs crossed like she didn’t care (and at that moment she didn’t). The other team scored two more goals on us. I took DC out of the game and she sat down with her back to the field in a huff. The first half goal-keeper volunteered to go back to that position since AG clearly wasn’t getting it done. I gladly gave permission. We shifted the back line to make up for DC being out. Our new Center Defender (who usually plays outside defender and is highly skilled and a fireball) lit it up. We were on the attack again. Kept the ball at the other end and GS made (by far) the most beautiful and amazing goal of the game. We were back in it and everyone except for AG and DC was pumped. Then time ran out. We lost 3-1 in a game that should have been winnable.
At home that evening I delayed reaching out to AG and DC. I realized that they didn’t need to hear only my anger. They needed to be confronted with their pettiness (getting their way on what position they played was more important than the team winning the game). I did meet with DC and her mother the next day. I explained to her what I was doing at Forward (that in my mind it was not in the least a prize to give to the strongest player but part of a strategy to place girls where each one can be most effective to the team effort. I explained that GS was our best hope at scoring and that the team couldn’t afford to have our next strongest player in the other Forward position. It had nothing to do with that. I explained the role I wanted NP to play. I also told her why I moved NP out of the back line – trying to avoid a penalty kick for the other team. I told DC I had been angry but now I was mostly just disappointed and that the main thing was to learn for the future. She was in tears in a good way by the time we finished. I have attempted scheduling a conversation with AG and am reminded I need to follow up.
I spoke to NP’s mom and found that she was blissfully unaware of the situation on Sunday (changing her position helped with that as well). In fact mom said (in response to the question of how NP felt about the weekend experience), ‘she has basically kept her uniform all day, I had to make her take it off and take a shower.’
The challenge for this team was that it was only a tournament team and, even though many of the girls on it have played together for years, not all of them had. It was in many ways a new team that had only been together for 3 weeks. One thing I took away is just how absolutely critical team dynamics are. We played below our skill capability for the entire weekend because of our weakness in team dynamics. If we had managed to win game #3 we would have finished 2nd place in our little four team group and come away with Finalist medals. They would have liked that.
I had talked to the girls about being a team and encouraging each other at every practice. I had talked about our values of Responsible, Resilient and Reverent repeatedly. Me talking about it, alone, doesn’t get the girls to own it. For the team and for life, how do I help them to own these things for themselves? That is the Transitional Coach question which I know I must come back to again and again and which I must also find ways to get other NorthStar coaches asking themselves the same question.