On a glorious Sunday morning last October, one of those days where there is nowhere else you’d rather be than by the side of a soccer pitch, I was coaching my son Abe’s Under-13 soccer team. With about five minutes gone in the game, one of the opposing strikers broke through. He was bearing down on goal when our sweeper tried and failed to bring him down. As the boy stayed on his feet and had just the keeper to beat, the referee played advantage. His subsequent shot flew narrowly wide and that’s when the opposing coach jumped up.
“Next time he does that to you, you punch him in the face,” he roared at the top of his voice, veins bulging in his neck, eyes popping. It would have been comical if it wasn’t so serious and so normal around here. The coach received a yellow card from the ref and play resumed. No big deal.
A couple of weeks later, we were 2-1 down against one of the better teams in our league. For most of the second half, they battered us. Our keeper made a few good saves. Our defenders and midfielders performed heroics under severe pressure. As the final minute dawned, I was proud of how bravely we’d battled and relieved we were going to escape without a morale-sapping hiding. That was about the moment we lifted the siege. A couple of nifty passes were strung together and, totally against the run of play, we managed to grab an equaliser. The kids were thrilled and so was I. Inevitably, the opposing coach wasn’t.
He ran onto the field as our boys were celebrating and shouted maniacally at his own team, “Horrible, that’s just horrible. How do you let that happen?” Hands gesticulating wildly, he was roaring this at 12 year olds who, as you can imagine, were already kind of gutted at conceding a late goal and turning what should have been a fully-deserved win into a draw that felt like a defeat. And he just kept at it.
When the final whistle went seconds later, he took his team into a corner of the field and berated them for another ten minutes as their parents watched and listened 20 yards away, none of them at all appalled by the spectacle. These fellows were 12, playing in the lower divisions of the Long Island Junior Soccer League. This is not elite sport. What is wrong with this picture?
I’ve asked that question a lot in recent months. More and more I’ve grown appalled by the behavior I witnessed from men charged with the job of coaching young boys. I’ve seen kids substituted for misplacing passes (surely page one in the “how not to teach the game” manual). I’ve seen a grown man take the ball out of an opposing 12 year old’s grasp on the touchline and kick it away in order to waste time while his team fought to preserve a “crucial” lead.
I’ve seen kids reduced to tears by the harsh comments of their own coaches and, more than once, those children happened to be suffering this abuse at the hands of their own fathers. Half the time, the antics I’ve witnessed have been so outrageous that I’ve felt like laughing at the absurdity of it all. But, mostly, it just made me sad and disillusioned with the dreadful culture surrounding children’s sport in America.
So, when the autumn season ended prematurely because of SuperStorm Sandy, I made the decision to walk away from coaching soccer. I’ve worked with kids for the past nine years and I’ve been with this particular squad of players since some of them were seven. I often thought I’d coach them all the way to Under-18s. But I’ve had enough.
I’ve had enough of the referees having to halt the games to ask the hyena parents to stop abusing the opposing kids. I’ve had enough of coming up against clipboard-holding clowns who think this is all way more important than it actually is. I’ve had enough of coaches who spend 95 per cent of every game shouting criticism rather than offering encouragement to their players. I’ve had enough of those who think winning a match involving 12 year olds is more important than giving every kid significant playing time and helping them develop basic skills.
Most of all, I’ve had enough of having to shake hands at the end of matches with opposing coaches I’d much rather punch some sense into. Not the beautiful game.