Thursday, March 30, 2017

Confessions of a Girls Coach

I am not a woman. I have never been a girl.

But I am a coach of girls teams.

I have coached girls for as long as I have coached. My first coaching gig was tennis where I coached both girls and boys. After leaving tennis, I became a high school girls soccer coach.

Well, technically, I'm the girls' assistant coach, but the head coach is also the basketball coach and the seasons overlap so we don't get to have her with us until after our first quarter of the season is already passed. Because of this, we function more like co-head coaches with me focusing on soccer skills and tactics and her focusing on conditioning and the mental aspects of being an athlete.

I had originally signed up to coach soccer to make sure some of my male students who had been pushing for a team got a coach who took both them and the sport seriously, but I was actually okay with being assigned to the girls. One of our other teachers had been a soccer coach who founded a program at his previous school. Since the boys who were going to be on our team had actually been playing competitively on teams in the adult league organized by our local Catholic church for years, I didn't feel comfortable coaching a team where the players knew more than me.

The girls were different. Whereas the boys' team was entirely Hispanic except for one, my girls were more diverse. A third of the team was Hispanic. We had a team-building thing in our first year where we asked our girls why they were playing. Many of these girls talked about they'd always wanted to play but they were never allowed. They had watched their brothers and dads play and were excited to get the chance to have their own team. Talk about motivation to be a good coach. Another third were athletes who'd never played soccer, but were coming from softball and basketball to play their second sport. The final third had never played any organized sport. They just thought soccer sounded fun. Some coaches would see this is a disaster waiting to happen. I saw it as an opportunity. This lack of experience would allow me to read, watch, and research my way to keeping my soccer coaching skills ahead of my team's playing ability.

And it worked. A lot of teams in our area started teams the same year we did. We beat them all in our first season. We even beat a team with an actual history, and we had a chance of making the playoffs until our star scorer, a softball player who had never played before, was injured halfway through the season. Our second season has been even better. We have a good chance of ending the season with our first winning record and making the playoffs. We've done well as a team.

But I have noticed something I didn't notice about girls' sports in my work with tennis and cross country. Coaches and referees treat our girls differently than they treat our boys. There are no officials in those sports in high school and there's never any legal contact, but soccer is different.

We don't have a youth program in our county and none of our players have more than one year of experience. We can't rely on crisp passing, smart runs, and perfect positioning to win games. We work on those skills and we're usually better at those things than the teams we beat, but we have to hustle. We have to be aggressive, and I don't mean we play dirty. Soccer is actually a contact sport. You're not allowed to pull, trip, or push an opposing player, but if you're both going for the same ball, you are allowed to use shoulder-to-shoulder contact to keep your opponent from getting the ball. We coach our girls to be persistent and aggressive defenders without fouling. It's the same way the boys play.

Coaching girls this way is natural for me. The women in my family tend to be confident and bold, or at least give off the outward appearance of being that way. My sister was an aggressive and competitive athlete and the other members of my family encouraged those traits in her. I'm pretty sure that part of her personality was what my dad loved most about her. Coaching my girls to play the way my sister would have played is natural to me. It's a challenge, especially since many of these girls have been encouraged to be the opposite and discouraged from taking risks their whole lives. Well, except the softball and basketball players. Those girls are used to being athletes even when they aren't used to be soccer players. The girls seem to respect our head coach and me, though, and we've gradually developed them into a team more willing to take risks and unafraid to be aggressive on the field.

Except that frequently when they play the way we ask them to play, the refs caution our girls to stop being so aggressive, especially when they see an opposing attacker starting to get frustrated by our girls keeping them from being able to pass or shoot easily. I have seen refs caution one of our girls for playing too aggressively when she hadn't even touched the other player. I've never seen them do the same to one of our boys unless the boys actually committed a foul.

Even worse, I often get stories after the game where refs were making flirtatious comments or commenting on the girls' appearance during the game. DURING THE GAME. This isn't just from the college kids we get as refs sometimes, but from middle aged men older than me.

This frustrates me, especially that it doesn't seem to seem weird to the girls. I want to make my team a place where these girls learn that they can still be women even if they're willing to stand up for themselves and fight for something, that they don't lose their femininity just because they want to be an athlete. It hurts when I see parents who clearly don't take what their daughters do as seriously as what their sons are doing athletically.

But I can let my girls know that I take them seriously as athletes, that I take pride in their successes, that I love seeing them be tough on the field, that even if their parents aren't in the stands that my parents are there (and they usually leave before the boys finish their game after ours).

I'd love to be one of those guys who, because he doesn't notice it in his own life, dismisses women who talk about the problems they face in a society that is less sexist than it was in my grandparents' time, but is still not entirely fair to them. Because I care about these girls (and my sister and my wife, and my daughter), I can't dismiss it. I think it's important that more of us stop dismissing it.

And in the grander scheme of things, sports don't even matter. I like to think that some of the things we teach our girls about not being afraid to make a mistake, not being afraid to ask for what you want, not being afraid to be competitive will transfer to their future lives. I don't know if it will, but when a girl works up the courage to ask me about playing time, I consciously work to explain to her what I need to see from her in order for her to get that shot. She won't always get that response in life, but maybe my treating her with respect and giving her an explanation and a plan to get what she wants may make her a little less hesitant to ask in the future when the consequences of her asking are much more important than just a place on a soccer field.

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