The lesson I can’t teach, the lesson I won’t learn

Yesterday, the soccer team I coach lost eight to one. It might have been nine to one; to be honest, I stopped keeping count at six. It was a tough game, and my team looked off from warmups. I don’t really know why. I don’t think I’m a fantastic coach. Not bad, just not awesome.

The team I coach is fifth grade girls. Most of them are eleven now, but a few are still ten. We have one sixth grader. Our league has tryouts, but we cut only two girls this year. It’s really a rec league. I work hard to make sure the girls get equal playing time, and while I usually let them play the positions they like, I make them try out new ones as well.

We were in first place and undefeated before our game today. My girls may be ten, but they aren’t stupid. They know that the score matters, no matter how much I sometimes wish it didn’t. They were ashamed and sad, and each goal made it worse. After the game, after we shook hands, the other team made a tunnel for my girls to run through, and they chanted B-R-A-V-O bravo! at them. My girls couldn’t meet their eyes. They were embarrassed. Not just because they lost, but because the other team pretended like it didn’t matter, when they all knew it did. If it didn’t, the other coach wouldn’t have screamed at the ref when one of my girls got too free with her elbows (and we got scored on anyway). If it didn’t matter, he wouldn’t have kept his star player in for all but five minutes of the hour-long game.

After the game, I didn’t know what to say to my team. I wanted them to leave with some message that would make them feel better, knowing full well that even the best message can’t stem the emotions you feel after a loss. I wanted to give them back some pride while still using the loss as a teaching moment. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I do remember feeling so silly as I said it. I was trying to make meaning where there wasn’t any. I thought, if this were a story, we would have had some come from behind victory (unless the story was about a Jamaican bobsled team, but even then, there was something good in the end—or so we’re led to believe). Even without a victory, of learning a life-lesson, there would have been some purpose there, some bigger meaning, some sense.

A few hours later, I got an email from one of them asking me if I thought she could have saved any of the goals. Some of the girls—maybe most—went home and forgot about it. They did their homework, or watched some television. Maybe they thought about our practice tomorrow, but maybe not. But this girl was bothered enough to ask me about it, but I have no answers.

What I said: Don’t worry about it. We play as a team, and no one person’s mistake will make or break us. You did a good job when you stopped their break away. I thought you played with heart. You made me proud.

What I didn’t say was the thing that makes me most proud is how she handles herself, how the pain eats at her, like it always did me, but how, unlike me, she owns up to it. I’ve always been one for making excuses because I want so desperately to believe that my shortcomings are things I can’t help, like being too short. I went home after the game, and I didn’t spend time analyzing my coaching performance, considering what I could have done better because it’s too easy for me to make those excuses. And I’d like to say now that I’m learning the lesson from this, that I’ll be a better coach/role model/human, but the truth is that most likely none of that will happen.

You did well, I told her, and for now, that’s good enough.


  • I love the heck out of this post, Kathryn. This line, especially: “I’ve always been one for making excuses because I want so desperately to believe that my shortcomings are things I can’t help, like being too short.” I like the idea that the player’s email jolted you into thinking harder about the game, and realizing how to her, it’s a big deal. That loss is eating away at her. But for you, you’re older, you’ve got a job and a life, you understand that it’s a rec league game for 11-year-olds, and while in many ways it does matter- the girls are improving their basic soccer skills, they’re learning how to function as a team, they’re learning about leadership, they’re learning that practice matters, that getting better at something takes work- but despite all of that, you can recognize it’s just one game, and it’s not quite as bitter of a loss for you. Or maybe you are just deal with losses differently.

    It’s a weird thing, being simultaneously really hard on yourself, but also wanting to make excuses for the things that are outside your control. That definitely resonates. Cool post. I also like thinking about the differences/similarities in coaching these 11-year-olds and teaching college students. Future Bark post?

    • Kathryn Houghton Kathryn says:

      Thanks. It’s funny to me how many contradictions we embody, if we are willing to see them. Yesterday was a contradiction I hadn’t yet been able to see.

      I’ve been trying so hard lately to remember my 5th grade self, to put myself in their position. While I have no memories of playing soccer, I do have a very vivid one of trying out for our school play, and when I read the lines (for Jessie of the Boxcar Children, a part I eventually got, in my first and only acting role), I remember thinking that I was the only one who understood the tone and inflection of the character. I remember walking away from the audition thinking I HAD to get the part. Not because I wanted it, but because I was clearly the best. Had I not gotten it, I would have been crushed, like the time a year later when I hid under my bed for an entire evening because I’d gotten a D on a quiz.

      Everything is so present to these kids. The here and now matters so much more to them than it does to me. It’s so strange, then, that I feel so torn between a desire to protect them from reality (something I would have been appalled at, a year ago) and wanting to teach them how it really is.

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