You didn’t really have to be there – the only ones there were the coaches and their players on the field – oops, the pitch! And the only near “poignant vignette” occurred after the game, when the victorious assistant coach, with a forty pound weight advantage, celebrated the upset by launching himself into the arms of the winning coach, who, obviously, was underweighted by forty pounds. That coach happened to be what is left of me.

This post will highlight some coaching lessons, rather than the aforementioned vignette.

The head coach was assuming his well-practiced aw-shucks, I’ve been here before, nonchalance, masking whatever exuberance he might have felt, for several reasons. First, the somewhat controlled mask during victories allows the same mask to appear to accept defeat graciously (as opposed to coaches or players who throw tantrums during losses, justified by “I hate to lose” – as if the rest of us don’t hate to lose just as much). Second, the opposing coach was a brother-in-law, and two of his players were nephews. Third, the victory wasn’t classic, and the pitch wasn’t perfect. Fourth, the winning coach had a few misgivings about his strategy for the contest.

Background: I was an easy target for “we just need one more coach – for senior boys,” so I “volunteered.”  My son was a late transfer from hockey. My brother-in-law was co-founder of the league, and spent early hours with his brother lining fields to get the program going. His sons were soccer specialists. Both teams had good athletes and some new recruits, but his team was deeper into soccer strategies.

Thankfully, I can’t remember how badly they beat us in our first encounter, but I had learned my first coaching lesson then. In most games I had seen, a midfielder is designated for a throw in, and takes the ball from the sideline retriever while his strikers get into position. So when we kicked the ball out, I was turning to position my defense to be ready for the throw, but noticed my nephew (a striker) had chased the ball down and already thrown it in, and all his teammates were storming my goalie. We were caught flat-footed.

Note to all coaches and players: This is a winning strategy (and it makes the opposing coach very nervous!)! When you think you have an advantage by positioning your players for the attack, guess what the defenders are doing – catching up and positioning themselves to defend! (My daughter’s college team used the conventional approach, but once my daughter, a striker, violated protocol by chasing an out-of-bounds ball as her cousin had done, throwing it onto the field quickly to an advancing freshman teammate, who asked “what do I do?” – my daughter said “go to the goal” – and the freshman scored her first collegiate goal.)

Second coaching lesson – a gentle suggestion from one of my players: “Coach – don’t substitute while we’re in the offensive zone.” He wasn’t asking for more playing time, but stating the obvious – we have the advantage, let us keep it – the big MOmentum! I always felt bad having a player on the sidelines too long, so I would have a player rest for two minutes, then send him in for a different player, and keep that rotation going. But this made sense, the same way lesson one did. The only exception to slowing down would be when a player can launch a throw-in that directly attacks the net. One local high school team slows down its offense for both situations – substituting and throwing-in, even sometimes throwing in to a standing target surrounded by three defenders and losing control two thirds of the time – but, what do I know, that team has three state championships.

About the winning coach’s diminished exuberance – his approach to the game may have been a corner kick short of great sportsmanship. The re-match had to be postponed because of rain. In re-scheduling, the coach realized that his team had little chance of winning without best players present, and stalled when his hockey players couldn’t make it, so the re-match probably didn’t happen at the first opportunity. The field was still wet for the re-match, slippery near the goals, and disruptive for long passes, but there was only one small puddle on the field.

The final dramatic vignette from the game – the opponents are mounting their last attack near the end of the game for a tie; striker from the right flank (my nephew) makes a precision leading pass to striker from the left side, who is beating my fullback; the pass hits the lone puddle in the middle of the pitch and veers off target

The pitch wasn’t perfect, but it was an extra defender for the winning team.

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