Once upon a time, I was a soccer coach. Although I held the title and the ranking of “coach,” I don’t think I ever really understood the power or the importance of a coach in a child’s life until today. Growing up, I had my fair share of coaches and I remember most of them fondly, 1 or 2—not so much. Most of the coaches were parents who wanted to contribute and to spend time with their children. Others were school coaches. I remember their names and I remember the skills they taught me. None of them left a big impression on me except for my dad. I was athletic, but never a star athlete. And although I have never been particularly talented at any one sport, I fell in love with soccer at a young age.
Following my soccer career, which culminated in a 4-year varsity starter spot in high school (I went to a pretty small school), I entered the “just playing for fun” phase of adulthood. As I worked through college, I randomly got the opportunity to help out with a girls youth soccer team. I had the privilege of being a youth soccer coach for three years. The team was my little cousin’s and the girls were all probably 8/9 years old when I joined the coaching ranks. The girls were in 3rd grade and I stuck with them through 6th grade. After that, my cousin went on to the premiere leagues.
For me, those girls were the world. When I first became a coach, I had just transferred back in-state to finish college. I didn’t know anyone in Kansas City anymore and things were tough. I had the opportunity to share with them a sport I have loved since I was 5 years old. I got to teach them and encourage them. I taught them how to tie headbands with pre-wrap and how to make ties to hold their sleeves up when it was hot outside. I would wrap their ankles and cheer them on. I’d make them run, but I always ran along with them. I would have parties for them and make them treats. And in return, those girls saved me. I was so lonely and sad at that time in my life. They brought me such joy and I always felt like they were all my little sisters. I loved every single one of them. Because of them, I had a purpose.
I knew that we all had fun; I have lots of wonderful memories of our time together. Perhaps one of my favorite memories was the time the head coach was absent and I was left alone to run the practice. The ground was soft and muddy—my favorite environment to play in. So I decided to let the girls get muddy and taught them how to slide tackle.We dove around in the mud and practiced slide tackling orange cones. I’m sure the parents hated me when they came to pick up their kids from practice, but I knew the girls had loved it.
I never knew that I had made a lasting impression on any of them. We would play soccer and run and I watched them grow as little people and as players on the field. For the longest time, I believed that I was the only one who had benefited in any long-term way from coaching. But since leaving the field after that last game, I have had 2 opportunities to see some of the girls all grown up. When my cousin entered high school, she joined the soccer team and had a couple of teammates who had played on the youth league with her. I went to a game once to cheer her on and afterwards, one of the girls from our old team recognized me and completely leaped into my arms. She seriously launched herself into the air and trusted that I would catch. It was probably one of the most moving experiences of my life thus far.
Last weekend I had the joy of experiencing a similar circumstance. On May 19, my cousin, along with all of those girls I coached, graduated from high school. I went to my cousin’s graduation party and was sitting around talking to family. My mom came and pulled me from the conversation saying that a girl from the soccer team was asking if “Coach S—” was at the party. I went to find who was asking for me and found one of the little girls I had coached, now all grown up. She was beautiful and confident and is getting ready to go off to college to become an engineer. It took me a moment to place this grown up face with the little girl I remember from elementary and middle school. We hugged and talked for a long time. I remembered that this was the little girl who would make all the cards that the players would sign for the coaches at the end of the season by hand. I remember cherishing those cards as if they would have been made by my own children. When I left the party that night, I don’t think I could have felt any better about my life and the things I have done. I don’t think I did anything special. I coached them and encouraged them and I hoped that the encouragement I gave would help to give them the strength to strive forward in this harsh world, to overcome, to succeed, and, in the event of failure, to not admit defeat and try again. But it’s just a tiny drop in the bucket of life.
I am so surprised that these girls remember me and ask for me. And it makes me teary when they refer to me as “Coach S—.” As an adult, I can see that “Coach” is such a special name. And still, I feel so lucky. What those girls gave to me all those years ago when we were on the field together I receive all over again when I run into them, when they recognize me and remember the activities we did together fondly, when they call me “Coach S—.”
When I was growing up, 99% of the time, the coaches I had were men. And men do make great coaches. But I think there is something special about being a woman and getting to coach other girls. I was really young at the time I was coaching. When I stopped, I was about 21 years old. I think I connected with the girls so much because, to them, I wasn’t a parent. I was like a fun sitter.
This experience has done more than show me that I made a difference and mattered to those kids, even in some small way. It also reminded me of the importance of volunteering and giving back. I used to volunteer so often and ever since I started my full-time job, I haven’t made the effort to find a project to be involved with like I should. If I had the opportunity to be an assistant coach again, I would pounce on it in an instant, even if I never got the sort of reinforced gratification I have been privy too since my coaching days. And maybe someday I’ll coach my own kids or the kids that my sister and cousins have. Either way, once upon a time, I was a soccer coach and I hope the girls I coached live happily ever after, wherever they go, whatever they do, and whether they are playing soccer or not.