As a teenager I loved the movie “Love and Basketball”. I remember watching it for the first time at a basketball sleep over in high school. For a high school girls’ basketball team, it was amazing. It’s quite literally about love and basketball. Teenage romance aside, there is one line that has always stuck out to me. The Coach says to the female lead in so many words, “Why do you think I’m so hard on you? If I thought you didn’t have it [the talent], I wouldn’t push you. When I stop yelling at you, then you worry.” I have said this, or something similar, numerous times.
I now coach youth girls’ soccer. I started coaching my daughter’s town team when she was 7 in the Under 8 Division (U8). As a coach I have evolved tremendously since that very first game. Literally I walked on to the field and asked the other coach, “Umm how many players are on the field at a time?” As it turns out playing soccer four seasons a year from 9 years old through High School, doesn’t prepare you for this sort of thing. But I evolved and three years later I am coaching our town’s Under 10 (U10) travel team and we’ve become competitive.
No Matter The Age You Can Be Pushed
The catalyst to my evolution was the moment I realized that no matter the age you can be pushed. Last spring the thought occurred to me that soon some of my girls would move up to a higher division and I didn’t want them to walk into that unprepared. I truly believe that if you love the game you’ll work hard and therefore improve. I was so afraid that if I pushed my girls that they’d lose their love of the game. That’s not true. In fact, I was doing them a disservice. What I realized is that what really keeps kids involved in sport is investment. Investment from their families and investment from their coach’s. I make sure that as I push them they know it’s because I am invested in them.
Some kids, people really, are naturally more driven than others. One can not change an individual’s personality. But I also believe that given the choice, kids will go where they feel they belong. Even at a young age I believe kids want you to push them. We are born wanting more, wanting to evolve. The human body is capable of so much. It just needs the brain to get on board. And I don’t know when as a society we decided we should stop fostering that from the start.
They Saw Excellence
That spring, we started doing suicides to end each practice. Every single practice ended with at least one girl crying. It killed me, tore at my insides. But still every practice ended the same. And this really cool thing started to happen, the girls started to see themselves differently. They were proud. They believed they could do more. Maybe even anything. I would tell them this every single practice. “If you want it, and work hard, you can do anything.” I would let them cry, and let their teammates comfort them and I would talk to them. I would tell them I was proud, but more they should feel proud. Because the truth is I do not know many people who keep going when something hurts.
That was a really big lesson for me and I took that lesson into this season. We started practicing earlier in the season and conditioning became a regular part of our routine. My team is made up of 7, 8 and 9-year-olds. Every practice we run, and we push and then we push some more. To my amazement not one girl has quit and not one parent has yelled at me. This Fall we were a force to be reckoned with losing only one game to pretty much the US Women’s National Team. Seriously I have NO idea where that team came from.
Remind Them: Demand Excellence
My method was a very intentional process centered around what the girls wanted. I decided to ask them what they wanted. I asked a simple question to start our season, “What kind of team do we want to be? A first half team or a second half team?” Meaning at the end of the game do we want to be exhausted or do we want to still be outrunning the other team. They all told me they wanted to be a second half team. Whether they all fully understood this, I don’t know. I asked them next. “Are you all willing to trust me?” They said yes. And from there I explained that we will have to work really hard, even when it sucks, every single practice. I promised that after games they will reflect on their practices and understand the reason I pushed as hard as I did.
Every practice throughout practice I made sure to remind them of their goal. I would talk to them about personal excellence and doing the work. But most importantly I reminded them of our team goal- to be a second half team. And I would end every practice with a speech before suicides where I would tell them this work is how they accomplish that goal. Every practice, at least one girl cried. But not once did any girl stop. Not once.
Evolve as a Team
After our first indoor game, after the conclusion of our outdoor season, one of the girls looked at me with this grin. She said, “Well… I think we are definitely a second half team.” The entire team shook their heads in agreement with pride. They have gone through an entire season where each girl has pushed themselves on an individual level and as a team. What I find amazing is that they are 7, 8 and 9 years old.
Some of these girls will play soccer through high school and maybe even college. Others, their soccer careers may be shorter. As we evolve as a team we will continue to focus on skills and fundamentals. We will have to adapt to stay competitive and this will become more important as we move into higher more competitive divisions. But the one thing that will always remain will be my expectation for personal excellence. I push every girl who participates on my team to their limit to become their best self. And the reason it will continue to work is because I will continue to make sure they understand the why. They will always know that I push because I believe in them. If they only remember one thing about their time playing soccer my hope is that, it’s when they push themselves they can do anything.