Graswich Unleashed: Playing by the Rules

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For 10 weeks every Saturday morning from September to Thanksgiving, I hear kids playing soccer at a park near my house. Actually, I don’t hear the kids. I hear parents and coaches cheering, shouting and groaning. I coached youth soccer for a few years, and the noise brings back memories, some of which are nice.

I loved the kids. They made endless mistakes and refused to deploy basic skills. But there was joy in their failure and they were never mean-spirited or conniving. They were free spirits and didn’t believe soccer was the most important thing in their lives. Despite their blasé attitudes, they sometimes outscored the other guys.

The parents were pretty agreeable, too. They volunteered for jobs like pulling down the nets and bringing orange slices and juice packs. The only time the parents upset me was when they were late retrieving their kids after practice, leaving me to baby-sit.   

No, the reason I quit youth soccer involves the other coaches. They claim to sacrifice on behalf of the kids, but some are in it for themselves, and they hurt the game.

Coaches in recreational youth soccer don’t get paid. (That comes later.) They are volunteers, typically well-meaning parents, amateurs by definition. But amateurs can be dangerous, especially when they define themselves in professional terms—victories and standings—without understanding those things.

When I became a youth soccer coach, I got myself a professional assistant. His name is Bert Terry, and he’s a soccer expert, having played and coached for six decades at every level around the world. I didn’t want Bert to devise pro strategies to win games. There are books for that. I begged Bert to help because he devoted his life to really understanding the game and could pass along his love of soccer to the kids.

We started with children 6 years old and watched them grow. Our problems grew along with the kids. At first, we ran into a couple of coaches who actively tried to win games—a bad move with 6-year-olds. A year or two later, we faced coaches who neglected to follow an essential rule of recreational youth soccer: Every child must play at least 50 percent of the time, even children with no skill whatsoever.

Several times, referees told us it was OK to ignore the 50 percent rule, because the opposing coaches were ignoring it. They were playing to win. “Bloody rubbish,” Bert would say, and we would pull our best young athletes so weaker ones could play. Our kids played at least 50 percent, no exceptions. We lost games we could have won.

My coaching career fell apart shortly thereafter. An opposing coach asked if we would suspend the offsides rule, because it was too complicated for some kids. We shrugged and agreed. The coach immediately sent a player—his son, it turned out—to stand in front of our goal and wait for an easy score. Bert was livid. “You’re teaching them to cheat!” he shouted. The coach replied, “No, I’m using strategy. I know the game, and you agreed to suspend the rule.”

I don’t remember how the match turned out, but I resigned from coaching when the season ended. Bert still thinks I overreacted, letting some jerk drive me away from a beautiful sport. But that’s easy for a guy like Bert to say. After all, he’s a professional.

R.E. Graswich co-hosts the afternoon news with Kitty O’Neal weekdays on NewsTalk 1530 KFBK AM radio and reports nightly for CBS 13.

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