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Zen and the Art of Coaching U-6 Soccer
Alumnus picks up valuable spiritual and psychological pointers from his sonsí teams.
by Max Wright
Another season of under-6 soccer has come and gone. Since this was probably my last season coaching this age group, Iíve been feeling a little sentimental, and Iím looking back over the last six years Iíve spent coaching kids, including my own two sons, in that division.
In all honesty Iíll have to admit that if winning is the measure of success, I havenít been the greatest coach. My teams have won a few, but weíve lost a lot more. I guess I havenít taught my players all that much about winning, or leadership, or ball handling, or tactics. The sad fact is that if, by some miracle, any one of my players does grow up to be the next Pelť, I wonít be able to take any of the credit.
On the other hand, while I may not have been the best instructor, I have learned a lot of things, most of which have nothing at all to do with soccer.
Hereís an example of what I mean. Our leagueís rules stipulate you must have five players on the field. On a typical Saturday afternoon I look out onto the pitch, still naively hoping Iím going to see something vaguely resembling a soccer match. Instead, one kid is playing in the dirt, another is chasing a butterfly, two others are wrestling with each other and one is actually chasing after the soccer ball ó the one that just rolled over from the adjacent field.
Now, before I became wise in the ways of coaching under-6, this scene would have driven me out of my mind. Iíd yell and scream and gesticulate wildly at a bunch of kids who were far too busy playing and wrestling to listen to me anyway. Foolishly, I had assumed that because my players had signed up to play soccer, and because they were wearing soccer uniforms, they were actually going to play soccer.
Eventually, I learned to view things from a more positive perspective. After all, they are all on the field, and theyíre all playing, right? Nowhere do the rules specifically state that they have to be playing soccer. My mission is accomplished. (It occurs to me now that as my coaching career is winding down, Iím well prepared for a job as a political spin doctor or selecting and editing criticsí quotes for movie ads.)
Iíve also developed a very Zen-like attitude about a game more famous for sparking riots than inspiring inner peace. A friend once told me that certain Buddhist monks practice archery as a form of meditation. To them, success comes not from hitting the target but from how well one draws the bow. I remember one occasion when one of my players neatly won the ball from an opponent, streaked down the field, keeping the ball completely under his control and then slotted a hard, low, unstoppable shot right inside the post Ö of his own goal. I consoled myself with the thought that, despite this unfortunate result, his form was perfect. (In fairness to my unfortunate player, I must point out that many U-6 games come down to which team scores the fewest goals against itself.)
Coaching under-6 also provides valuable insights into risk management (Enron Corp.ís Ken Lay should have coached under-6). My players are unanimous in their belief that the short-lived glory of scoring isnít worth the risk of being stung by the wasp patrolling the other teamís goal area. Theyíve also taught me that itís not worth making a great tackle and saving a goal if it means your knee is going to get scraped. Or getting your new jersey dirty.
Iíve further learned that who wins is not as important as whatís for snacks afterwards, and that the team bench is a poor substitute for your momís lap. Iíve learned that the fact thereís a game going on and youíre on opposite teams should not stop you from sitting down and having a nice visit with your friend from day care. And that the considerable accomplishment of kicking the ball in the right direction is worthy of the same sort of fist-pumping, cartwheeling, high-fiving celebration as scoring the winning goal in the World Cup. Above all else, Iíve learned that keeping score really isnít worth the time and effort as long as everybody gets to play and everybody has fun.
And it occurs to me that if I taught my players just half as much as I learned from them, then I may have been an OK coach after all.