As a middle school soccer coach for the better part of the past 16 years, I can honestly say that there’s NOTHING I enjoy more than being out on the field with the lads for a few hours every afternoon. Something about athletics brings out the best in boys—and that’s just plain fun to watch.
I think what I like the best about coaching is that gives me an opportunity to have a completely non-academic relationship with kids. Everything about our work on the field is connected to the kinds of character traits that I care the most about. Determination, hard work, pride, honor, and commitment to others define the lessons that I’m teaching when I’m with my team.
(I know. I know. I could teach the same traits in language arts. It’s just that “Come on, guys. Don’t quit until you find those comma splices!” doesn’t have the quite the same impact on tweenage boys.)
What’s most powerful is having the opportunity to model how men are supposed to act in difficult circumstances—–and it’s just that kind of opportunity that I’ve been wrestling with all week long.
You see, on Monday I made a mistake that may cost my team the opportunity to win our entire conference—-something that hasn’t happened ever in the history of our school. I literally forgot that we had a game until it was too late for us to do anything about it.
How does a coach just “forget” about a game?!
(Short answer: He’s got too many other things going on in his life to keep up with everything! Sound like anyone you know?)
Now, officially “forgetting a game” carries a stiff penalty in our conference. The missing team has to forfeit the match and take a 1-0 loss.
Unofficially, though, forfeits almost NEVER happen!
Most athletic directors realize that @#$! happens when you’re dealing with overworked and underpaid coaches who spend ten to twelve hours a day at school during their seasons. Pair that with bad spring weather, bus breakdowns, and family emergencies, and rescheduling games becomes a part time job bordering on tradition!
Most athletic directors also realize that at the middle school level, teams only get to play seven games a season. While a forfeit might get you a quick win, it also means that YOUR kids lose a big chunk of their season, and no one wants to do that to players who spend three months practicing.
Nothing could ever be that easy for me, though.
The opposing athletic director doesn’t seem real willing to reschedule our game. We’ve offered several different dates over the next five weeks that we can play, and none of them seem to work. We’ve had our principal call their principal to see if she can change his mind. We’ve contacted the county athletic director and asked him to intervene.
We’ve begged. We’ve pleaded. We’ve apologized. We’ve explained, yet nothing has worked.
“We just can’t do it,” he says. “There’s not a single day free for our coach or for our players. You’re going to have to forfeit.”
When my boys—-who are probably the most physically talented and genuinely kind-hearted team I’ve ever coached—-found out, they were equal parts heartbroken and furious. They’d had their minds set on an undefeated season and a conference title, but with this “loss,” it will be difficult at best for us to make it to the championship game.
“Why won’t they play us, Coach! They must be scared that we’re going to kill them. That AD is a jerk. Otherwise he’d reschedule in a second.”
Tough situation, right? I mean, I’m the jerk. I’m the coach who couldn’t keep up with the calendar and get my kids to the game.
Could the other AD have made things easier by agreeing to reschedule? Of course. But in the end, the mistake wasn’t his fault. It was mine.
And strangely enough, I’m kind of glad that he’s been so difficult! If he hadn’t, I wouldn’t have had the chance to show my boys how a man should act in a situation where he’s screwed up.
“Guys,” I’ve explained. “You have to realize that this is my fault. There’s no excuse for me to just ‘forget’ about a game. While I’d love to see us play, if we don’t, I’m the guy that you have to blame.”
Talk about a hard speech to give!
I mean I probably could have gotten away with pushing the blame off on the opposing AD. I could have argued that his decision is pretty unusual and strangely inflexible. And heck, my kids were already mad at him! (They didn’t even consider that I might be at fault.)
But I knew that their 12 and 13 year old minds were absorbing everything, and the lesson they most needed to hear was that honor starts when someone owns up to their mistakes and that trust can only be built when someone is honest.
Now, maybe I’m being naive, but I’m pretty sure that my kids will remember bits and pieces of this situation ten years down the road. It’s not like an athlete to forget the details of the events that defined the championships that they’ve won or lost—even when those championships happened in middle school!
And if their memory centers on my willingness to be accountable for a costly mistake, then this week’s loss will be a long-term victory in the lives of a group of kids that I care deeply about.
In the end, being a small part of those long-term victories is why I teach.