I gathered them together in a huddle. Some were crying, while others fought back tears. Some were looking at the ground and some were watching the other team shout and celebrate. With a smile on my face, I told the kids how proud they had made me and that there was no reason to be down. That they all played as hard as they could and there wasn’t anything to be ashamed of. Parents clapped for the team as I instructed them to hold their heads up high. We shouted one last “Go Wildcats!” and then I shook their hands and patted them on the back before they got into their vehicles and drove away.
* * *
5 minutes earlier- The other team takes the lead, after the ball dances around from player to player in front of the goal before finally getting knocked in. Knowing that time is running out, I shout for the team to pick up the pace and win each ball.
10 minutes earlier – The other team scores a game-tying goal and begins to gain some momentum.
20 minutes earlier – After a penalty kick, the ball lands in front of the goal and our players are there to knock it in. We take the lead 1-0.
30 minutes earlier – the first half comes to an end. I congratulate the kids on a hard fought first half. They’re winning almost every ball and fighting hard. With only 12 players, I tell them I know they’re tired, but they need to dig deep. Some of the kids are in pain from getting kicked, hit, and pushed. With dirt covering their faces, they place their hands in the middle as I tell them to spread out, look for the pass, move the ball downfield, and get back on defense. We yell, “Go Wildcats!” and off they run to their positions.
60 minutes earlier – The game is about to start. I’m huddled together with a group of 3rd and 4th graders, including my son. I look each kid in the eye and ask them if they’re ready for the big game. We are one game away from the championship and are about to play the most important game they have ever played. If we lose, our season is over. I tell them how proud I am of each of them. We do some chants and I yell encouragement in our close proximity. Then with a loud, “Go Wildcats!,” the game begins.
* * *
As the kids left with their parents, my wife walked up to me, placed her hand on my back, and gave me a kiss. She congratulated me on a great season and I nodded. Inside, though, I was heartbroken. In an hour, I went from an ecstatic coach, to a coach that was trying to inspire a team, to a coach that was consoling his team while licking his own wounds. I’ve lost many games as a coach in the past, but there was something about this loss that really got to me. It wasn’t that there would be no trophy, although the bragging rights would have been nice. But I felt like I had let the team down. As their coach, I made decisions during the game, as all coaches do, and the team lost. My wife told me that I was not to blame, but my heart said something else.
To be honest, though, the loss wasn’t the real reason my heart was breaking. You see, as a coach, I really get to know the kids. In the course of games and practices and long carpool rides, I see their many sides. By the way they interact with me and their teammates, I discover a lot about them. I know who is struggling with his schoolwork. Who is being bullied. Who is shy and struggling to come out of his shell. Who is overconfident or not confident enough. I know who would rather stay an extra fifteen minutes at practice then return to an unhappy home. And after four seasons together, these are my kids.
I’m not the best coach there is and I’m not a fantastic soccer player. In fact, I know there are parents who are much better at soccer than me (more than one parent on my team played soccer semi-professionally – how’s that for pressure). The thing is, though, I understand the kids and I care about them. My team is an important part of my life and every day I pray for each player by name.
And now, another season has ended.
New activities and responsibilities will fill my days, but I’ll hold onto this loss for a while. That may sound silly – after all, it is a game. But to me, it isn’t just a game. It is an opportunity to speak into a child’s life.