By In Family

The First Goal: Revisited

So, here we are, last day of the year — Happy New Year, everyone, and all the best to you and your family this year — and it seems like everybody’s recapping. On the radio, they’re doing a countdown of the best songs of 2013. On various blogs, I’m seeing the best movies, the best television shows, the best gadgets, the best apps, the best inventions, the best medical advancements, the best political moves, the best Miley Cyrus dances.

And, of course, in sports we cannot stop ranking stuff.

So, let me tell you my favorite sports moment of the year. It might have been talking to Mariano Rivera for the first time or seeing my first soccer match at Wembley or walking around Fenway Park in the moments before World Series Game 1. It could have been seeing Peyton Manning throw seven touchdown passes in a game or standing on the ice in Boston after the Stanley Cup final ended and talking to celebrating Blackhawks while the Stanley Cup itself worked its way around.

It could have been watching Michigan’s unknown Spike Albrecht making shot after shot in the national championship game or Adam Scott making that putt on the 72nd hole to win the Masters. It might have been standing at the bottom of a mountain and watching Bode Miller ski down or watching Gregg Popovich grump his way through an interview or talking baseball with Billy Beane and John Mozeliak — the two best in the business right now, I think — as we walked around the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City.

Well, it could have been a lot of things. This was a pretty great sports year.

But, well, it wasn’t any of those things. Of course it wasn’t.

Two years ago, my favorite sports moment was this: My oldest daughter Elizabeth scoring her first basketball goal.

This year, our youngest daughter Katie asked me to coach her soccer team. I had never coached any of my kids teams for numerous reasons, both philosophical and logistical, which are not worth going into now. But Katie can be a persuasive kid, plus her league was short several coaches, and so I uncomfortably stepped in.

Why uncomfortably? I never think anyone shares my personal philosophy of youth sports which is: Pay attention, have fun, be a good sport. That’s pretty much it. I don’t care whatsoever about winning. Let me make that clear; I don’t care AT ALL. Even mild parents would probably say I care too little about winning.

I can’t help it. I really don’t care. Maybe it comes from being around many of the the most competitive people on earth. Maybe it comes from Elizabeth, who from the time she was 2 was always infinitely happier to see SOMEONE ELSE win than actually win herself. I don’t know why but it’s an issue. I am not just uncompetitive but perhaps even anticompetitive when it comes to my kids’ sports. Sure, I know the argument that being at least somewhat competitive at every age is important because life itself is a competition. I know that competition motivates, competition inspires, competition ignites. I also know that many people mock the “everyone gets a trophy” mentality of youth sports people like me.

And I’m not saying they’re wrong. I suspect I’m wrong. But it’s my way. I guess in the end I don’t think there is any shortage of ways for kids to learn how to compete. They learn it everyday at school, at lunch, with their friends, at the dinner table, in Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and various school clubs and, well, everywhere. Competition is ever-present in their lives from the earliest years. I don’t think youth sports — I’m talking about for young kids — are there to teach competition.

Well, anyway, by age 8 — Katie’s age — the competitive players, most of them, have already broken away into intense leagues with Great Santini coaches and, again, that’s right for them. It’s not my way, though. I laid this out for the parents of our team right away, just in case they wanted to find a better coach. I included this in my letter to the parents:

“Our only goals as coaches is to make the sure the kids have a great time and, hopefully, get better. My day job is as a sportswriter, and so I’m around some of the world’s most most intense competition all the time. I love this league for my daughter precisely because it’s NOT about that. Every player on the team will play exactly as much as the others, and every player will play every position, and I hope every player will come out of this feeling a part of something great.”

Yes, I can feel you gnashing your teeth from here. Surprisingly, no parent asked for a replacement coach. Or, anyway, I didn’t hear if they did.

We were the Light Blue Team. There were various protracted efforts to come up with an actual nickname but nothing ever came from them. When I met with the Light Blue Teem, I gave them two rules. One, they were not allowed to in any way question the referee. And two — no, actually, now that I think of it, there might have been the only rule. It annoys the heck out of me when I see a kid question the referee. I can say, proudly, that at one point a player on our team went over to the referee and started to question him, and another ran over to his teammate and said, “Hey, don’t question the ref,” and they both ran off.

Actually, we ended up with a good team despite me. Every player on the team tried, they had good attitudes, they showed up every week, and they even seemed to like each other most of the time. There were really no discipline issues. It goes without saying that I had absolutely nothing to do with any of this. But I think I did impress them with the color-coded spreadsheets I made each week to make sure they all played precisely the same minutes and every position. And I lost five pounds running around on the field (coaches are allowed on the field in this league) encouraging, rallying and annoying our players with compliments.

Katie was the only girl on our team. She didn’t seem to mind. Katie is tiny — I think the smallest kid in her class — but she’s fast, and she’s pretty fearless, and more than anything else she follows directions. I’ve actually never known anyone who follows directions better than our Katie. She has a ferocious sense of justice. We think she might end up being a judge.

Last year, when she was playing in the soccer league, a local professional soccer player showed up to teach the kids some things, and while (let’s face it) most of the kids ran around without paying attention, Katie listened spellbound. Directions! She hungers for them. The player told her, “When a teammate has the ball, you run toward the goal so they can pass it to you.” From the point on, this was exactly what Katie did, which meant five or six times every game she would be wide open running toward the goal.

As you probably know, if you’ve ever coached 8- or 9-year-old soccer, this doesn’t mean much. The odds that a player will actually PASS the ball to an open player is slim. The odds that the pass would actually get through is slimmer. And the odds that Katie would receive the ball and get a shot on goal — right, we’re talking about astronomical odds now.

Still, she kept rushing toward the goal whenever the time was right. A few times, players tried to pass to her but, for one reason or another, the play was foiled. Again, she did not seem to mind.

So: my favorite sports moment of the year. I was standing deep on the defensive end of the field trying to cheer up one of our defenders who, I can’t remember, had either hurt his ankle or had a stomach ache from eating two hot dogs before the game. And the ball was kicked out to one of our offensive players, who dribbled for a few steps. Katie, as she always did, raced toward the goal. And then, the first miracle: Our player kicked the ball ahead, a perfect pass, to Katie right in stride.

Then, the second miracle: Katie had a brilliant first touch, putting the ball just in front of her. The defender was behind her now. She had only the goalie to beat.

And then: The third miracle. She kicked her shot on goal. She did not kick it very hard. But the placement was good. The goalie lunged for it. And the ball rolled by his hand. It rolled into the goal. Katie’s first goal.

But that wasn’t my favorite sports moment.

No, it was the moment that followed. Katie, with a big smile on her face, turned around to find me me. I gave her a big thumbs up and shouted. And then, without celebrating, without making a big deal at all, she raced back to midfield, told her teammate that he made a great pass, high-fived a couple of others, and got back into position. Yes. Act like you’ve been there before.

In the car afterward, I asked her how she felt after scoring her first goal. She said she was happy, but she didn’t want to make the goalie to feel sad. I said, “Well, let’s celebrate now.” And we went to celebrate, over ice cream, where she replayed the goal again and again, each time a little bit more exciting, until she made it sound a bit like the Maradona goal of the century at the 1986 World Cup.

“Was it really like that?” I asked. And she smiled again.

“No,” she said. “But the next one will be.”

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29 Responses to The First Goal: Revisited

  1. Colby Prough says:

    Stupid dust in my eye.

  2. largebill says:

    Having coached several average teams (never soccer, thankfully) I agree with minimizing competitiveness to a point. A kid doesn’t become a decent pitcher unless he has a streak of competitiveness in him. While I think it is very important to develop good sportsmanship, it is also important to develop a desire to get better and to want to win even though we know the other team also wants to win.
    The other thing I would say based on dealing with parents is never make promises that are too specific. “Every player on the team will play exactly as much as the others, and every player will play every position” I tried to give kids fairly even playing time, but I’d be lying if I claimed it was exact. I told them every kid will play but not every kid will get to pitch. Every kid would bat, but if your kid is late for pre-game (30 minutes prior to game) they bat last. No cussing, no fighting, no arguing with ump and treat opponent like you’d want to be treated.

  3. Dave says:

    Beautiful Joe. Just beautiful. As much I love almost all of your stuff, your writings about fatherhood are inevitably my favorites.

    And to anyone at all who thinks this we’re being soft on this generation of kids…well, they need to open their eyes. My children are 14 and 11 and in every walk of life, without exception, they face much more intense competition than I did at the same age (in the 70s and early 80s). Schools, sports, activities, games, you name it.

  4. Mark D says:

    I just want to express my gratitude for this wonderful blog. Go, Joe!!

  5. Brian says:

    Thanks, Joe, for the joy you bring me with each of your posts. Hope you and your family have a great 2014!

  6. UVA Jim says:

    My daughter has played and loved sports since she was five and has never lost sight of the value of sportsmanship. She won many honors and awards but my favorite moment/picture of her came from a game she played in college. It is a view of her arm around a teammate, offering consolation after a defensive lapse in a lacrosse game.
    You should continue coaching sportsmanship and love of sport. I am certain that your coaching is as great as your writing. Thanks for bringing back a wonderful memory.

  7. I have boys, so it may be a little different. Boys do want to play to win, but it’s also not going to wreck them if they lose, as long as they don’t get their tail kicked every game. I always committed to giving everyone a chance to pitch if they could throw 50% strikes in a simulated game after practice, and they came to all the extra pitching practices I held. I found that if kids came to practices and tried hard, they were generally able to pitch in a game. If it went well in the game, the kid earned something, gained confidence and all was good. If the pitcher struggled in a game, often they were embarrassed and didn’t want to pitch anymore. Well, if you can’t handle a bit of embarrassment, probably you’re not ready to pitch. But, either way, I always found at least 2-3 pitchers that could contribute beyond the obviously talented boys, who helped the team. I also moved kids around and tried them in various positions.

    So, I don’t think that at the younger ages, at least, being competitive and giving every kid a chance are mutually exclusive. I even think that, at the older ages, too many coaches don’t give promising kids enough play time to develop into solid contributors. But, I do still believe that they should ultimately earn things…. A little at younger ages, more as they get older. At 8 yrs old, like your daughter, It’s a very good way to go about it as long as there is real effort to improve. I’m not far apart from you at all at that age. I have seen coaches who play for yucks and more, or less, roll the ball out there. That’s a complete waste of everyone’s time.

  8. Number Three says:

    My daughter ‘plays’ with a 5-7 yo ‘soccer academy’ — all drills, scrimmage, skills-focus, no games. The coach — actually a very successful local coach, young and smart and ambitious, this is how he recruits his players — tells the parents the first day, ‘If you care about winning games, you’re in the wrong place.’ He also actually discourages cheering during the 1-on-1 drills, which make up a large part of practice. I have become friends with the other parents, and there’s something very strong in the norm of encouraging effort, de-emphasizing results. Because in soccer, how many goals are you going to score, anyway?

  9. Hoffman Mark A. says:

    Proof that you’ve got your priorities straight, Joe! You’re a great Dad! Truly, some things Visa can’t buy! God bless you!

  10. Mike says:

    Hate to be a pedant after reading such a wonderful story, but…

    Adam Scott sank a putt on the 72nd hole and thought he’d won the Masters. That was until Mr Cabrera stuck an iron to 3ft and tied him. He actually won the Masters on the second playoff hole. I do agree that his reaction after sinking the putt on 18 was incredible!

    Happy New Year, Joe. Thanks for all the marvelous wriiting.

  11. Jim says:

    I can still see the look of pride when my seven year old son caught a pop foul behind the plate. The only one with more pride on his face was me.

  12. Jim T. says:

    Way to go Katie!

  13. AM. says:

    Love this piece Joe. Can I assume that you have read Mike Matheny’s letter to the parents of the little league team he coached after retiring (before going to coach the Cards)? Lots of great parallels, especially the respect for umps:

    I also love your phrase “ferocious sense of justice.” I’ve often described my (9-yr-old) son as having an acute sense of justice and destined to be a lawyer. Maybe he will get to argue in front of Katie’s court one day…

  14. Chad Meisgeier says:

    Love it. Best game coaching my son was a game we lost 1-0 in 11 year old baseball. Both pitchers threw strikes. Both teams put the ball in play. Both teams played great defense.

    Loss didn’t matter. It was poetry to watch.

    And, never question the ref/ump. If the ref/ump is having a bad day, it is your job to strive to achieve despite him, not to use him as an excuse.

    Joe, your favorite part of 2013 should be the joy you bring with your writing. Okay, your daughter is more important, but at least take some time to recognize yourself a little too.

    • I would make a slight amendment to this. Yelling stuff at the refs about their calls is wrong. However there are times when a ref/ump doesn’t know the rules. It is right, and proper, to call a timeout and quietly discuss it with them. My son was batting one time, and the pitch bounced in front of the plate and hit him. The teenage ump ruled that because the ball hit the ground first, it was not a HBP. That call is an irritatingly common misunderstanding of the rules. I called timeout and discussed it with him, and long story short, he didn’t reverse his call. The game continued. After the game the ump found me and told me he checked with the head ump and found out he had blown the call and apologized. If I hadn’t challenged his ruling, he never would have understood the rule.

  15. mbastable66 says:

    Katie is my favorite subject…from the Harry potter experience, to the swim team and now this gem…go Katie go.

  16. R Brown says:

    Please congratulate Katie on her goal, and on her choice of parents.

  17. Jon Kopplin says:

    Awesome Joe. I love these stories.

  18. Kootenai Jake says:

    now I have three favorite sports moments that actually matter:

    1. watching my son win gold at his 1st special olympics winter games skiing

    2. watching kids i coached in 5th grade basketball take the state champions to the edge … and lose by 1 pt

    my kids, however, thought they had won because of how tough they played them

    (this despite uber competitive parents hating that i played everyone equally and only wanted them to have fun, learn the game and be better for having been part of our team)

    3. and (‘sniff’ – damn dust in my eye too) Katie scoring and acting and not showing up the Goalie

  19. Joy says:

    Love love love. My husband agreed to coach our 8yr old daughter’s team for the same reason…..short on coaches. They were the orange team….The Netherlands. Their team cheer was “Wooden shoes!” He ended up having the time if his life trying to instil the same qualities you mention…..and he ranked it #1 on his Top Ten list for 2013. As I know your wife would agree, great Dads rule!!

  20. James says:

    I coached my 9 year old daughter’s softball team last year. She was on third and the pitcher walked the batter, forcing her in. My daughter skipped in. I don’t know if that violates the unwritten rules, but it was pure joy on her part and because of that, mine.

  21. Paul says:

    This might be my favorite sports moment of the year, too. As a kid who played soccer (poorly) at that age, and never scored a goal (although I did almost have an assist once, after I faked out the other team’s defender and 4(!) of my teammates managed to whif on the shot directly in front of the goal), I am very excited for Katie. Hopefully my Katie will show as much athletic talent as your does. Happy New Year.

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