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These Boots Are Made for Talking

It’s a real kick when the "you" in youth sports is you. Do yourself a favor and sign up.

One of the Sous Chef’s childhood best pals “friended” me recently on Facebook, and it brought home a flood of memories of the 10 years I coached girls youth soccer in Mission Viejo.

The Sous Chef, our youngest daughter, and Legs played AYSO together on teams I coached starting when they were kindergartners until they were teenagers. The Sous Chef and I went on to the West Coast Football Club,  and then she played at Capistrano Valley High School before turning in her shin guards for a Shun knife.

Her freshman year—when she set an unofficial school record with about a dozen yellow cards (the coach presented her with a Crunch candy bar as a trophy at the postseason banquet)—was the peak of her fútbol career. The Cougar varsity team had two junior national team players and five California Olympic development squad members that year, obviously the heyday of South Orange County girls’ soccer.

As just about everyone with a kid knows, youth sports are a wacky, sometimes wicked, but mostly wonderful, world. We had a great run, and it was one of the most rewarding times of my life, despite the fact that virtually every weekend of our lives for a decade revolved around kids chasing balls. (You’d think I could have taught the Bee-choodle to do that by now.)

I coached some great Region 84 All-Star teams, some great spring select teams, some great and some not-so-great recreation league teams and some good club teams. There were tears of joy and tears of pain … like the time I got my finger caught taking down the E-Z UP.

There was the thrill of victory but never really the agony of defeat. And that was one of the greatest things about coaching girls.

Oh, they can frustrate, no doubt. Let’s just say they’re easily distracted. But they make incredible teammates, and they’re able to keep things in perspective. A couple of examples of what I’m talking about:

Our Region 84 All-Star team lost in overtime of the championship game of a tournament in Goodyear, AZ, to … another Region 84 All-Star team. (The local folks weren’t exactly happy about the mix-up that led to us both entering—and then both being accepted—to compete in the same tournament.)

About 10 minutes after the game, two of our players were hugging and sobbing. Then I heard one whisper, “What are you wearing to dinner tonight?”

Ah, perspective.

I like to call this story the F-Word Incident, but it’s not exactly what you’re thinking.

“She Called Tiffany Fat.”

Our spring select team was playing an opponent in Laguna Niguel when one of my best midfielders, a hard-working player who hardly ever even committed a foul, was closing in on a loose ball with an opposing player. They got to the ball at nearly the same time, just as our player raised her fist—as if in a solidarity salute—to smack the opponent in the side of the head.

She rightfully received a red card and was ejected.

I pulled her aside and said, “What was that about?”

She looked me straight in the eye and said: “She called Tiffany fat.”

Good teammate? You could take this young lady to war.

Then there was the year we turned Region 84 on its ear. Coach John had this idea that it would be a great experience for the girls, now 12, to play against some competition that wasn’t so, well, South County. So I checked into joining a spring league in Long Beach that hosted teams from many surrounding areas. Long Beach league officials were happy to have us, and the Region 84 commissioner reluctantly gave her OK. So I recruited a team, telling parents that our home games would be in Long Beach—there was no way Region 84 would provide time on one of its precious fields for a renegade team. The girls were totally into this idea, though, and almost everyone agreed to play.

Then a few local coaches got wind of it and went absolutely bonkers. There was screaming at a coach’s meeting. One guy stomped out in protest.

But the Mission Viejo VooDoo played in the Long Beach league that spring,  and it was pretty much what we bargained for. Not every parent on the other team had a brand-new minivan. Not every player had a brand-new pair of shoes. And skin colors spanned the spectrum of mankind.

We finished tied for second behind an undefeated team from Hawthorne,  not a single member of which was a blonde with a ponytail.

We were playing in Downey one afternoon and trailing, 1-0, in the second half when the Sous-Chef-to-be hit the post with a shot that caromed out of bounds. A lady on the opposing sideline had been borderline obnoxious throughout the match. Then she decided to take a running leap over the boundary:

A Real Eye-Opener

“Whattsa matter, you little rich bitches, can’t you buy a goal?” she screamed in glee.
One of our players stopped in front of me as play went back the other way, her eyes as wide as saucers. “Coach John,” she said, breathlessly. “She called us the ‘b-word’ … and she’s a mom!”

Just as I had planned, the Long Beach league turned out to be a real eye-opener.
A new commissioner took over Region 84 that year, one of those guys who was not happy that some of Mission Viejo’s best players were wearing VooDoo green and black that spring instead of the city’s blue and gold.

The next year, I ended up with a rec team that featured my daughter and Legs (her mom was my assistant) and not much else in terms of soccer skill or knowledge. I attribute this to pure coincidence; players are rated, and league officials do everything in their power to create evenly balanced teams … and Kadafi has his people’s best interests at heart.

We lost all our league games, were subsequently seeded last in the playoffs and faced the best team—coached by one of the region’s all-star coaches—in the first round.

Almost the entire game had been played on our half of the field, and we were trailing, 1-0, in the fourth quarter when Legs sprinted down the wing and fired a 15-yard laser into the top corner of the net. With a minute to play, the Sous-Chef-to-be stole the ball near midfield, sent it between the legs of the sweeper, raced around her, caught up to the ball and one-timed a shot past a diving goalkeeper.

The whistle sounded, and the girls cried. My assistant cried. A lot of parents were crying. (OK, my eyes were a little watery, too, but my finger was still throbbing from that E-Z UP injury.)

Our opponents had 29 shots on goal that night; we had three. But the two that ended up in the net produced the most satisfying victory I ever experienced as a soccer coach. Well, on the field, anyway.

Most of the greatest victories came at practice, or in a hotel lobby, or in the SUV on the way to games. One-on-one talks with girls who giggle and avert their eyes but thrive on encouragement, want guidance and guidelines, feel free to be themselves in the security of a team and blossom like flowers when they gain confidence in their abilities.

If it’s hard to imagine a kids’ soccer game bringing you to tears, consider this note in a Christmas card I received from a player that year:

“You are one of the most important adults in my life. I love you as my own father and your influence has been a big part of my life. I’m glad we’ve shared so many special times together and I hope that we have a good relationship our whole lives.”

Youth leagues always need volunteers. Do yourself a favor and sign up.

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