Monday, March 19, 2012

Put me in, coach (or at least give me a brownie)

For more than a decade now, I have been a volunteer youth sports coach. This is an important position in which parents and kids alike rely on you to teach valuable qualities such as teamwork, discipline, and sportsmanship.

I'm kidding, of course. Not about being a youth sports coach, but about what parents and young athletes care most about. What they care about can be summarized as follows:

PARENTS: Winning, their child's playing time, and the soaring cost of youth sports participation

KIDS: Snack

I can understand the parents' priorities, because in addition to being a coach, I'm also the parent of young athletes. But I've never been able to explain the kids' fascination with their postgame or post-practice snack.

This is especially true with my U8 soccer team. These are kids in kindergarten, first and second grades. My halftime instructional/pep talks usually go something like this:

ME: "OK, guys, gather around me! Good job in the first half! We did a lot of good things and I really like how you guys hustled out there. Just a couple of problems, though. Let's watch our passing, and let's make sure we keep good spacing between us and our teammates, OK? Any questions? Yes, Johnny?"

JOHNNY: "Who brought snack?"

ME (taken aback even though I've been asked this question 8 bajillion times during my coaching career): "Snack? Um, I don't know. I'll have to check the list."

At this point, one of the other kids raises his/her hand and volunteers that his/her mom is, in fact, the one who brought snack today. This is followed by a barrage of excited questions from the other kids: What did your mom bring? Is there enough for us to have seconds? Did she bring those little packets of Oreos, too? And on and on and on...I quickly move to restore order:

ME: "Hey, hey, hey! Guys! Pay attention! Listen, we'll all get snack after the game is over. But right now we have another half of soccer to play and we need to work on our defense." (Johnny raises his hand again. I eye him warily before acknowledging his presence.) "Uh, yeah? Johnny?"

JOHNNY: "How come Mackenzie's mom forgot to bring snack last week? I was really sad that I didn't get any snack."

MACKENZIE (clearly offended by this attack on her mother): "She just forgot, OK? Don't YOU ever forget anything? You're not so perfect! She felt really bad that she forgot to bring snack. She said something about having all these darned kids and not being able to remember which one is supposed to be where at what time, and that my stupid soccer coach keeps signing her up for snack when she has no time to go out and buy anything because she's a single mom and works three jobs. And then she cried. She does that a lot. Anyway, I'm telling her you said that!"

ME (again attempting to restore order): "GUYS! GUYS! GUYS! Can we not talk about snack now? Anyone who mentions snack again before the end of the game won't get any snack at all, do you hear me? Now let's get back out onto the field and have some fun!"

JOHNNY (more to himself than anyone else): "I just really wanted snack, is all."

What I've learned over the years is that when kids show up for, say, a soccer practice or game, the last thing they actually want to do that day is play soccer. They would rather play on the playground. Or try another sport. Or look at dandelions. Or stand on their head. Or anything else except play soccer.

So therefore you have to keep things moving and interesting. Instead of boring drills, we engage in a variety of games and activities that are tangentially related to the sport of soccer but surreptitiously teach them the necessary foot skills. We move from one to another in rapid-fire fashion, because no matter how well-behaved the kids generally are (and they really are good kids, almost every one of them), the minute they put those shin guards on, they all suddenly have the attention span of Corky from "Life Goes On."

The parents are actually good people, too. Understandably, they are concerned that their child derives the highest possible benefit from their soccer or baseball experience, and they can be touchy if they perceive the slightest injustice in the amount of playing time allotted to the little tike. Many of them firmly believe their 7-year-old has the talent to earn a Division I college athletic scholarship, and that you as the volunteer coach are the only thing standing in the way.

But parents really are integral to the world of youth sports, fulfilling a variety of useful functions.

The most important of which, of course, is bringing snack.

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