To say I was naïve is an understatement. I walked out on the mini-field feeling confident about the practice I was about to coach. After all, I have coached lots of children in many different sports over the years. I stood poised in the middle of the field, blew my whistle and waited for my team to assemble. Nothing happened. They were still scrambling hither and tither without a care as to who I was or why I was standing in the middle of the field blowing a whistle. I blew again thinking that they would stop kicking their soccer balls, pick them up and come join me in the middle of the field. Again, nothing happened. I resorted to yelling for all of them to stop and come to the middle of the field. Two of the six timidly edged toward me, one ran to his mother crying, one sat down by the goal refusing to move, another hung on the top of the goal post like a monkey and one ran off the field yelling, “I have to go potty!”
Approximately fifteen minutes passed before they all stood facing me holding onto their soccer balls for dear life. I stand five feet tall and I towered over my munchkin charges. None of them had knees – or at least you couldn’t see their knees because their soccer socks and their shorts met somewhere in the mid-calf area. All eyes were staring up at me and I was suddenly filled with uncertainty and dread.
First, I kneeled down to their level and then I said, “We’re just here to have fun and learn some skills.” They continued their blank stares until one finally spoke; “Can we keep our soccer balls?” “Sure,” I said, “You can use your own soccer ball in practice, but when we play a game, we’ll only use one soccer ball.” The child who asked the question slumped his shoulders and, through choking tears, cried, “I just want to play with my own ball.” “Why can’t I just play with my own ball!” Soon the rest of the team joined in the chant working themselves into a frenzy. Needless to say, this practice wasn’t going as I had planned. I quickly crumbled up the paper I was holding with all my drills written on it and kicked it into the goal. Time for a new strategy – problem was, I didn’t have a clue as to what to do. In fact, I am not sure how I got through that first practice.
The practice was an hour long. Four-year-olds should never have soccer practice for an hour. In fact, I’ve become a firm believer that most four-year-olds should not have soccer practice at all. Soccer to a four-year-old is completely different than what we think of when we here the word soccer. Here are the rules, in order of importance, for anyone even considering coaching four-year-old soccer:
- During practice every ball must be given equal treatment i.e.: a coach must never use one child’s ball exclusively
- Whenever possible, every child gets to keep his/her own ball
- Picking flowers (weeds) on the field is extremely important because the flower (weed) is for the coach
- When the snack bar announces that the pizza has arrived, practice is officially over
- Who cares which way the team is supposed to run or which goal the ball is supposed to go into?
- A goal is a goal is a goal – every goal counts for both teams
- When playing a game, each child’s ball should be rotated into the game
- Every child will have to go potty at least three time during practice and/or a game
- A whistle blown means absolutely nothing
- If the ball goes off the field, follow it
- Four-year-olds really mean it when they say, “I just want to play with my own ball!”
My team and I have grown since that first fateful practice. I’ve learned that laughing and playing are so much more important than rules and skills. I’ve learned that they learn in spite of the “coaching” we give them. They learn it’s ok to share their ball because they will get it back. They learn that a team means you give everyone a high five for everything. They learn that it’s ok to sometimes feel like not playing. They learn that coaches like weeds. They learn to respect each other and to love their coach. They learn that it is ok to cry if you feel like crying. They learn that is ok for the coach to cry if she feels like crying.
I learned that I don’t need to know anything about soccer and they’ll love me just the same. I learned that success is not measured in the number of goals scored or skills learned but in the number of kids that still want to play at the end of the season. I learned that some four-year-olds are not ready for soccer, but their parents think they are. I learned that some four-year-olds are ready for soccer, but their parents never will be. I learned to kneel down more and look down less. I learned that a weed in the hand is so much better than a crying child on the field. I learned to laugh and to love and, most importantly, I learned that sometimes a good coach doesn’t do any coaching at all.