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Call me Coach: lessons from the sidelines

Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

This week, I'll introduce myself to a group of 16 total strangers - and chances are few will remember my name. I'll struggle for weeks to remember all of theirs, but to them I'll simply be Coach.

They're soccer players - a team of girls aged 15-18 in a suburban recreational league. They'll be playing over the summer for me, a sophomore coach with a lousy track record (last season, the team I coached finished 11th out of 12), a bedside table stacked with coaching manuals and a league-issue polo shirt with "Coach" embroidered over the heart.

I've learned, I hope. I'll be less earnest right from the start. At last season's introductory meeting, ringed in by a gaggle of energetic girls, I delivered my Sermon on the Mount, espousing a coaching philosophy of teamwork, preparation, fairness and selflessness.

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Eyes rolled, gum was snapped, cloud formations became fascinating. Finally, one spoke up. "Can't we just play?"

Lesson 1: Keep it simple, keep it fun and when in doubt, shut up.

Lesson 2: Girls aren't boys. Neither are they the demure princesses you might wish them to be. On the pitch, under duress, some girls swore like stevedores. They spat. They perspired. They weren't averse to rough play. They retaliated. Yet at the first hint of a rain cloud there was mass panic. Apparently because our team was wearing white jerseys.

"Yeah? So?"

"Coach, like, see-through. Duh!"

Then there was that other awkward problem. The first time an apparently fit player came off the field and lay on the sidelines, I was the epitome of solicitous concern. "Are you okay? What's the matter? Winded? Did you pull something? Injure a toe?"

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"I'm sick."

"Well, whazza matter? Is it serious?"

The answer was one whispered word. "Period." Duh! I never again questioned a player who took herself out of a game.

Lesson 3: Once you get to know them, you won't like all of them - and they won't all like you. It took me weeks to learn their names. I had two Rachels, two Brittanys and three Christines (who eventually became Chris, Christina and Chrissy). All were dressed in identical uniforms and had their hair in ponytails. I frequently looked an idiot in early games, calling to send in Brittany when, with rolling eyes, I was informed, "Both of them are already out there, Coach." Duh!

When I did get the names straight, they became personalities. Some girls I liked enormously. They were polite, funny, listened and tried. Some didn't. They started out sullen and unco-operative and never changed. The simplest request became a contest of wills. This was especially pronounced when a boyfriend lounged on the sidelines and the bad-girl act had an appreciative audience.

I was smacked, literally, by the level of antipathy at one practice. We were rehearsing penalty shots. "Aim low, to the corners, girls," I instructed. "Don't shoot hard. Sacrifice speed for accuracy." I was the goalkeeper. One girl drove hard balls head-high every time. Especially when I wasn't ready. Didn't she understand? Duh! She was trying to hit me in the head! She didn't like me. She never would, and it was mutual.

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Lesson 4: The girls' nature outweighed my twice-a-week coaching nurture. The girls were often like their parents. The lovely kids had nice parents who would thank me after a game and hug their daughter, win or lose. The mouthy kids had mouthy parents. The timid kids had timid parents and the keeners had fathers who paced the sidelines shouting encouragement. And the jerk's parents sent her to games on the bus. Alone.

Final lesson: You can be too nice. By listening to every sideline request, piece of unsolicited advice or grumble - including some from parents - "Put me in now, Coach", "I wanna play beside X", "I'm not playing midfield!" - I got the team into trouble. Entertaining mid-game demands and trying to please everybody, I'd find my team with too many players on the field or too few, or the wrong ones, or with players out of position. I had to learn to say "no" or "not now." I tried to be "nice" when what was required was "pleasantly firm."

I enjoyed coaching. It was more work - much more psychological work - than I had bargained for. I wasn't very good at it. We weren't a very good team and we lost more often than we won. But I had fun even in the losing and most of the team did as well. And I learned.

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After our season-ending playoff loss, one of my favourites - although I never played favourites - came over to speak to me.

"Thanks a lot," she said. "Sir." It seemed an odd and incongruous ending. Standing there with my clipboard, bag of balls, medical kit, cooler of freezies and bowl of orange wedges, I watched my departing team scatter into the early fall dusk.

"You're welcome," I said. "And call me Coach."

Anthony Jenkins is an editorial cartoonist and illustrator for The Globe and Mail, and lives in Toronto.

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