A while back I ran into a former player of mine who I’ll call “Hope”, and who, much to my consternation, is now a real, live, walking, talking “grown-up.” I was happy to hear how well things have gone for her since we lost touch a decade ago- she is happily married, has a career she enjoys, and has generally “turned out well.” Soccer was only mentioned once during our brief conversation, when, as we said our “good-byes,” The first thing she said was, “Coach, I’m really glad I didn’t play in college.” I’ll tell you the second thing she said in a moment.
One of the most difficult things to do as a coach at the scholastic level is to instill in your player’s an a level of confidence that is appropriate to their abilities, or perhaps more pointedly, to their potential as a player. You want to help your players become as good as they can be and a big part of that is helping them to believe in themselves and their abilities. At the same time, if you go too far down that road you are liable to create expectations that are false and, therefore, unobtainable and that inevitably leads to the worst- and most avoidable- kind of disappointment. You also have to be careful not to limit a player’s “horizon” by cutting off their dream to close to the root because, well, you just never know, do you?
Part of the problem is that most high school athletes have no idea about what it takes to be a collegiate athlete, never mind a professional one. Once while watching a USWNT match with my players one of them remarked about how a certain player couldn’t be very good because she hardly plays and when she does it’s only during “garbage time.” This led to an impromptu “lesson” (one which I would give many times over the years as part of my ever-evolving “message” to my players) for my team. Specifically, that this player that they didn’t think much of was likely the best player on her travel team, the best player on her ODP team, the best player on her high school team, the best player on her college team, and was currently being paid to play soccer by a club in the ill-fated WUSA. In short, I told them, if you played against her you would realize that the is the best player you have ever seen- it’s that competitive at the top of the soccer pyramid.
The other part of the problem is that the average high school student- even the one with college-level athletic ability- has no idea of what it takes off the field to be a successful player on the field in a collegiate setting. In high school an away game might mean getting home a little late one night, or sacrificing a good part of your Saturday. At the collegiate level it can mean playing an away match on Friday afternoon/evening, another one on Saturday afternoon/evening without returning to campus in between. Instead, it’s long bus rides, budget motels, and fast food. This is not exactly a recipe for academic success or even a budding social life. In this case I was lucky enough to have a couple of real life examples to draw upon: my sister, who played two sports (softball and volleyball) at the Division III level and had great academic and non-academic success during her time in college because- in the best possible way- she’s “that” person: organized, driven, focused, etc.. Succeeding as a collegiate athlete for my sister was just one more thing to be checked off her list each day. The other example was my then girlfriend who played softball and volleyball for one year at the Division III level and, while she did well on and off the field, decided that she didn’t love either sport enough to make the academic, social, and personal sacrifices it took to remain a collegiate athlete.
It took some practice, but I think I eventually became pretty good both bringing a little reality into the equation for my players as well as navigating this figurative minefield of ability v. expectation. In the end I was lucky enough to coach players who went on to play at the Division I level at places like Brown, Tulane, Sacred Heart, Bucknell, and Fairfield. I also coached some players who found success at the Division III level at places like Framingham State, Dickinson, Muhlenberg, the University of the South, and Bates. In most cases I like to think I can take some credit for their success, however, in a couple of cases my greatest accomplishment was simply not getting in the way of a player’s abilities and ambitions. In one particular case I just got it wrong- I knew the young woman had the skills, but I never thought she had the mindset to succeed at the collegiate level.
I met Hope during the preseason before her freshman year and I learned immediately that she was supremely gifted young woman. I also learned almost as quickly that she had come to the school where I was teaching because she didn’t want to go to the public high school in her hometown because she knew that she’d never be anything but a “soccer player” there- it was then and still is a perennial top 25 soccer high school nationally. Hope had been the best player on every team and at every level through the end of middle school and based on her abilities there was nothing that was going to prevent that being the case all the way through the collegiate level. In her freshman year our team won 1 match, tied 1 match, and lost 11, yet Hope’s play was so impressive that the other coaches in the league voted her onto the All-Star team.
By the middle of her sophomore year, with her play continuing to improve and the team around her getting better people started noticing her. I began to see people I didn’t know (a rarity in the world of high school soccer) at our matches, many of them wearing athletic gear from nearby colleges and universities. I also began to get weekly “mail drops” from the athletic director full of letters from local and regional schools. By her junior year the visitors were coming from further and further away and from mostly Division I programs. The trickle of mail had also become a flood. The letters weren’t from UNC or Notre Dame, but still, they were from big schools in the world of women’s soccer. It was at that point that Hope showed me the list of schools that she was hoping to visit during the summer between her junior and senior years- I didn’t recognize most of them. I say this as somebody born in raised in academia- I didn’t even know what states most of the schools were in, much less why anyone would want to go to one of them!? I wanted to shake her by the shoulders and tell her what she was throwing away, but instead, I just listened.
The first thing she told me was that she loved and respected her teammates and her coaches and that for that reason she intended to play as a senior and to play to the best of her abilities- and she did. At the end of her senior season she became the school’s first All-State player in any sport. The second thing she told me was that while she’d been at our school she’d had the opportunity to develop interests outside of soccer and that she wanted to pursue them- and she did that too. After high school Hope went to a tiny college in the wilderness of New England, got her degree, and since then has traveled the globe in pursuit of her new interests and found a career which she dearly loves. Which brings us back to soccer…
The other thing that Hope told me during our brief encounter was that she had just started playing soccer again. She told me that she hadn’t put on her boots or kicked a ball since the final game of her senior season, but that recently she’d heard of a new women’s league forming in her area and she’d decided she wanted to play. She told me that she was having fun and that she found herself able to love the game again. Knowing that brought me more satisfaction than anything she could have done on a field at the collegiate level.