Fans' View

Fans’ View: The 43-year-old rookie

While one Fans’ View writer recently had the chance to live the dream, another of the crew finally played in his first ever organized soccer match. The experience was eye opening—and lung-busting.

Until seven or so years ago, the extent of my soccer knowledge could be summed up with what most non-soccer fans know: Don’t use your hands. Fortunately, my kids had good (and patient) coaches. I picked up a lot of the rules from just watching, and their coaches were happy to answer questions as long as they weren’t hip-deep in trying to run a game at that moment. The more I watched them play 8v8 soccer, the more it resembled hockey—a game I did play.

Eventually I ended up helping as an assistant coach, then took the leap and became a head coach. I found that while coaching soccer was sort of about teaching the game, it was more about teaching sportsmanship and the rewards of hard work while giving young players the confidence to go out and try.

(Side note: My best moment as a coach? The time a mom told me her son’s grades improved drastically after playing for me because he had more confidence and was willing to try without being afraid to fail. It fills me with enormous pride to know I had that sort of impact on a child.)

Something missing

Still, it felt odd to me to be teaching soccer while never having played. I knew there were all sorts of adult leagues around. The trick was finding one that was nearby, friendly to out-of-shape middle aged men, and friendly to somebody who was a beginner-level player. PSP’s Dan Walsh turned me on to the Casa League, which turned out to be a very good fit. The field where the lowest division plays is only a 10-minute ride from my house and it seemed beginner friendly. So I signed up for fall soccer and ended up on Free Agents United, a rag-tag band of players who didn’t have a team.

When I played hockey way back in high school, I played mostly as a defenseman, so I decided defense would be the place for me on the soccer field. I was already used to the bumping — even if I hadn’t done it in 25 years! — and a lot of the positioning seemed the same. When we got to the field, I was one of five or six players to offer to play defense. I made it clear that I never played organized soccer before, only done some goofing around with my kids. If that made anybody nervous, they hid it well. I survived warm-ups with no serious blunders either receiving or passing the ball.

Game time!

I’m heavily left-handed and left-footed. So the decision was to slide me out to left fullback. Yikes! I knew there was no way I could run the touchline like Ray Gaddis or Sheanon Williams. I wasn’t even sure I could throw the ball as well as some of the kids I coach! So I decided pretty quickly that I’m not going to be a Sheanon Williams clone. There won’t be any electrifying runs down the touchline, and there won’t be a crowd of people yelling, “BOOM!” whenever I throw the ball. My job is to play defense, and that’s what I focused on.

Did I mention I’m out of shape? The cramp in my side came quickly when I had to run with some young buck who decided to test me. I managed to keep up and cut off any passing lane to him, but I was gassed. And the game wasn’t five minutes old. Gasping for breath, I hung a little closer to our 18, knowing that if I had to make that sprint again I was likely to pass out. I survived the next couple minutes, was subbed off, got a drink, and pondered asking my wife to go to a medical supply store to buy a tank of oxygen.

Lessons come back around

Having played a few games now, I find several moments I can take back and use with my kids. I have a better appreciation for just how big the field is, and how much energy it takes to move from one end to the other. I have a better understanding of how hard it can be to keep track of a shifty player. I know all too well how difficult it can be to take on a player who is both faster than you and a better dribbler. These are all things I can use on the sidelines when coaching and teaching.

But the best lesson that came back to me? After the first game, I said to my wife and kids that I was exhausted. My daughter looked at me and said (paraphrasing): “Good! That means you gave it everything. That’s what matters, right? Trying your best.”

It’s nice to know they do listen, even if they don’t always show it. And so I need to keep trying my best.

4 Comments

  1. Southside Johnny says:

    Very enjoyable read, John. I too was sucked into the game by my kids years ago. Once I attempted to motivate our u-8’s by challenging them to “beat an old man” in sprints. I got into my best football three point stance and exploded off the line with a loud cracking sound which was my calf severing. It still hurts sometimes. Be careful.

  2. Great read. Really enjoyed seeing how this is working out.

    The adult soccer convert’s experience is a fascinating one. It requires an open mind, and then it takes that open mind and stretches it further. And it requires some guts, because it takes you out of your comfort zone. It’s a very tough sport to pick up in America as an adult, because you have to learn to think with your feet, rather than with your hands, which is how we play our other major sports. But it changes the way you see the playing field of any sport, and it humbles you and changes your role in the game. If you can do this with soccer, you can do it with so many other things in life, believe it or not.

    • Yeah, even now my instinct sometimes is to reach for the ball with my hands. Luckily, I’ve only been called for one handball this year, and that happened near the center circle so it wasn’t too devastating for my team.
      .
      Positioning wise, having hockey experience has helped. But the obvious big difference – no stick – makes some things different. The other big difference is that it’s easier to get away with holding in hockey, mostly because you get trapped along the boards and can get away with a lot as long as you’re aware of the ref’s positioning. It gets a little better each game.
      .
      It’s been a fun way to get some exercise and make new friends. I’ll be signing up for spring soccer with Casa for sure!

  3. I have played since I was six, and haven’t gotten any better since I was about thirteen. I coached for more than twenty years, however, all through all of my kids’ youth level. I found that the thing that helped me most as a coach was when I began to play both in regularly scheduled pick-up games and in a Tuesday night men’s league. Stick with it, John. It will remind you that the kids, too, want to be where they know they should be, and weren’t quite able to get there. It will help you to remember that the retaliation isn’t always thought out, and that a handball CAN be, as you already discovered, just a reflex and sometimes it is just bad luck that it is in the box. This was a good read, and reminds me that I will need to start looking again for the over fifty league…

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