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A Coaching Odyssey: Part 1 of X

The photo above has both nothing to do with what I'm writing here and everything to do with it at the same time. This particular image came from the aftermath of the final round of 2014 Concacaf World Cup qualification, when the United States B team with nothing to play for knocked out Panama and saved Mexico in the process.

After the final whistle blew, fringe US international Terrence Boyd hugged Panama captain Felipe Baloy, knowing what the result meant. It was one of the most impactful acts of compassion I've seen in the beautiful game and a moment that stays with me to this day.

This is a blog post about coaching youth soccer, but I wanted to lead with that image and the explanation of it to try to convey this idea of compassion. Neither of those men played in the 2014 World Cup, though Baloy would famously score against England in 2018. And it's times like these that I want people to keep in mind when I write about the youth game.

Listen: I'm not holier than thou, nor do I particularly know what I'm doing when I coach youth soccer. I'm not even the head coach of my team, but an assistant just there to learn more so I can maybe one day take over my own squad and instill values on young people using my own methods. So when I question the things that I'm about to, please know two things:

  1. I'm a relative novice.

  2. There's a 100% chance that I could be wrong.

With that out of the way, I want to discuss a moment from my game today, the first one I'd coached in over a year. Early in the second half, our team trailed by a goal and earned a free kick maybe 30 yards from goal. One of our attacking midfielders struck the ball decently, but not well, and the it flew into the upper right corner of the net to level the game at 2-2.

Except...did it?

I turned to the head coach and asked him if the ball went in and don't remember what his response was but the referee blew his whistle and pointed to the center circle, counting the goal.

Later, my players would confirm that there was a hole on the back side of the net and that the ball hit the upper support of the goal and ricocheted through the hole, making it appear as if it was a good goal, but according to them it was not. I didn't see it, but the opposing coach did.

It was his behavior that confused me.

Not only did he argue with the referees incessantly about the call during play, but he marched right past us to go inspect the net for himself for a good five minutes, before returning to the bench to yell at the referees, for which he received a yellow card.

When I texted one of my bosses this after, that the coach was probably correct that the ball didn't go in for a goal, I received the following response: "sometimes even when you're right, you're wrong."

Let me explain:

Was it a bad call? Probably. Referees make bad calls all the time. They are, in fact, human.

However, as coaches we cannot control the calls referees make, we can only control how we set up the team. Our players also can't control the calls referees make, only how they play in the game.

This was the first game for both of our teams in a full calendar year. No matter what, emotions were going to run high, but in the end, the person who let their emotions get the better of them wasn't any of the 22 pre-teen girls on the field, but rather a middle aged man on the sideline.

Bad calls suck, but I don't understand why this man protested so hard when he could have turned this into a teachable moment. There are so many possible lessons to come out of this. Examples in no particular order:

- Sometimes calls go against you.

- Don't foul the opposition in your defensive third.

- Be prepared for anything that could happen.

- Put the ball down in the six and try to take a goal kick.

Instead of talking to any of his kids, though, my opposite number painstakingly evaluated the structural matter the goal, spending his attention on a net rather than coaching his team. On his way back, he told the referees that they cost his team 3 points even though the score was 2-2 at that point and there were 30 minutes left to play.

I'd hope that his postgame talk didn't involve the referee because that would send the message that his team's 5-2 loss wasn't their fault but rather completely out of their control.

I feel for that coach and his players because their team caught a hard break, just like Baloy and Panama in 2014. However, Panama learned from that experience and qualified for the next World Cup. I can only hope that his coach has a similar response and that his team comes back stronger for their next game.

As for the compassion part, that should all go towards the referees -- the have the hardest, most thankless job in the sport, and we can't play the game without them.


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