At night, I scoured the team management manifesto of a ’70s Dutch soccer coaching legend and studied Brazilian training manuals from the ’90s for the best possible formations for five-a-side soccer. I weighed the virtues of a dedicated sweeper and four attacking players who could operate freely versus the security of two players hanging back on defense. The eight kids who regularly showed up at practice all ran hard and tried to put their kicks on target. We had options.
I wasn’t designing tactics for a hot-house travel league team or for a particularly zealous beer league with former college players battling thirtysomething corporeal decline. The team in question was my 5-year-old son’s, and the games were part of a Dallas YMCA-sponsored co-ed soccer league at his school.
The set-up was wonderfully low stakes: an on-campus practice tacked onto Friday afternoon, and Saturday games on a sun-bleached tundra next to a big north Texas middle school.
I soon learned our players could get anxious about how to put on a florescent yellow pinnie. Good clean tackles led to tears. Some of our players did not notice when our team scored, or when we conceded a goal. It was bird migration season, so pointing out a large mob of grackles perched in the trees was occasionally of greater interest than kicking the ball.
My 5-year-old was always going to play soccer. His mother is an excellent soccer player; I was a deeply mediocre player but remain an obsessive. My son’s nanny is a diehard supporter of Tigres UANL in Mexico and has dressed both my children in full Tigres kits. My son turned 2 during the summer of 2018, and he and I woke up together with early World Cup matches on in the kitchen. I have treasured videos of my then-diapered son standing and clapping for various national anthems.
For the first few practices, my role was exclusively as dad: I picked up my son from school, executed the snack and outfit change, showed him how to roll up his beloved high socks over his shin guards (he prefers to practice in European uniforms; Celta Vigo in baby blue and Arsenal in red are his favorites), walked him to the field, told him I loved him, and stood at the ready with water. Sometimes I’d pass the ball with son and any other kids there early before falling back to the sidelines to ready the water and the praise.
Then our head coach had a conflict one week. We had an assistant coach who flaked and seem determined to teach the kids the worst, least fun ways to play: a mob-around-the-ball offense paired ferrets-with-distemper defense that produced only scrums of tentative little kicks and dust.
So I stepped in. Practice was easy. I brought extra balls. I got cones and downloaded some U-6 drills and remembered what I could from my own undistinguished time in New England AYSO leagues. When the coach was late, I helped the team warm up and ran drills until he showed.
Soon I was co-coaching the team, designing practice, laying out cones, and helping a 5-year-old turn her foot to use her instep to pass the ball and then dashing 15 feet away to help a child receive that pass. My son was delighted. He called me “Coach Dad,” and chuckled to himself.
Anyone who has worked with small children knows how purely good it can be: children laugh. They call out their friend’s name as they pass them the ball. You announce a water break and they run toward the sidelines where someone who loves them has a water bottle ready for them.
The games were different. The scope was appropriately Texas-sized. Our league had teams from public, private, and parochial schools: from a public elementary by the state highway to a sprawling, lucre-drenched day school where the Dallas Cowboys’ owner named a field after him and his wife. Game attendance was high. Extended families appeared. Older siblings and cousins in their own uniforms for their own sports watched their younger siblings hack away at a soccer ball before the family drove to their own games.
The intensity of youth sports in Texas requires no introduction. High school stadiums that accommodate 10,000 are commonplace. The strongest, most comprehensive piece of Texas’s state infrastructure is the organization in charge of primary and secondary school contests—from referees to standings to championships in everything from marching band to football to one-act plays to meat inspection. Even minor high school and university football programs brand themselves with myths about Texas and being young and lost regional legends. There was a popular television show that dealt with these things. You may have heard of it.
Maybe the best example I have his personal: My son was a truly large infant when we first moved to Dallas. Once, as I walked him in his stroller through the Dallas Farmer’s Market, a stranger passed us, smiled, touched my son’s big chubby knee and said “linebacker!” to me like a benediction.
So while soccer in Texas is the wrong football—and as much as I imagine myself as separate from the visored, brassy, patriarchal families of volunteer coaches—I did join the same broad biome. And it did something to me. My eternally bookish inclinations toward soccer, my own failures as a young player, my broad experiences in teaching, the decades of witnessing and studying of this sport I desperately wanted to be good at but never would be—weren’t these the seeds of a future coach?
In our league, coaches stood on the pitch like a conductor. Our job was ostensibly to encourage the reluctant, to remind the selfish to share—every youth soccer team will have a ball hog determined to dribble aimlessly and confidently until the end of days—and to make sure everybody backs up when the other team has a goal kick. But inevitably, as you’re offering encouragement and reminders (on corner kicks: “Kick it from the corner flag toward the goal! You got it! Take your time!”) to your own team, you interact with the other parent coaches on field. You chat during halftime. The vibes can be odd: More than once I received gibberish from a dude with a Rolex Daytona about how both sets of kids “need to be more aggressive” during a sleepy late-afternoon game of 4-year-olds. It hit me: I was also there to manage these guys.
Our team won its first few games convincingly. My son and another teammate with soccer experience would both plow through midfield, collect the ball, run past everyone, and thump the ball into the net. The parents would cheer and the kids would shriek: all that mattered was that they had scored.
Watching my son’s team play up close, I felt tension: I wanted them to have fun first. And yes, I wanted them win. But I wanted them to learn, to try new things. Parents work hard make these practices and the kids are brave for being here: Let’s make it meaningful. Let me actually deploy my book knowledge about soccer. I was determined that the kids try to pass to each other and learn when to drop back into defensive positions. I started blending the Brazilian five-a-side games I read about with simple chaotic classics like having the kids shoot the ball at me as I ran around and sold like Ric Flair when I got hit. As Dutch coaching genius Rinus Michels wrote, “every training session is a form of communication.”
I felt a particular pride when our team beat and outplayed the teams coached by adults violating what I saw as fair play: teams made up of all boys; teams that left their best players in for the entire game and stashed the their shyest, smallest, and least experienced players on the bench. My disgust with some of the other parent-coaches blossomed into action. I taught our team how to run the drum-tight defense and the coiled counter attack of José Mourinho’s Inter Milan against better teams—and they did it. I made everyone rotate positions in the style of Ajax’s Total Football against weaker teams and they loved it. We started getting compliments from opposing coaches and team parents. I ordered more Brazilian training manuals. We devoured donut holes at halftime. I started wearing a Tilly hat with one side curled up like the game warden in Jurassic Park (every coach needs a signature). A stranger put her hands on my shoulders and congratulated me on having a “real soccer stud” for a son. Once, after we drubbed a team, the opposing coach—visor, golf shirt, dress shorts—shook his head in admiration at the final whistle and glad-handed me and my co-coach about our success like we were a bunch of hammy old SEC veteran coaches. I could not deny the pride I felt. These were games where some of the players still required diapers at night.
Now, with the season finished, I think I’ve learned something. Youth coaching, when done well, is the chance to create space where a child can change. Whatever my own path into coaching, I—the coach, the guide, the adult with his own stories and private motivations—shouldn’t matter too much. It is, as they say, about the kids. In the last game of the season, the shyest, previously most disinterested player on our team decided to charge through midfield, win the ball, and dribble toward goal. I gasped and cheered as if the spirit of Garrincha had materialized on this scrubby patch of grass in Texas. She missed her shot on goal, but when she turned around, she was smiling and her mother and grandmother and the rest of us were cheering her name like true believers.