Today, I want to write about this one kid on Pip and Polly’s soccer team because there was a moment during practice last Thursday that I feel is important to record. This kid – let’s call him Harvey - is one of those kids who can drive a coach nuts. On the field he is quick and aggressive. He’s not big, but he bulls into things in such a way that he knocks stronger kids around. He goes after things and takes chances. Sometimes this works out for him. Other times it doesn’t. During practice he has a tendency to make a scene, jumping into the middle of his teammates when they’re circled around a coach or throwing out things like ‘I hate that’ before doing a drill to see what kind of response might come. I don’t find him to be necessarily malicious – he usually goes ahead and does the drill, he doesn’t loaf, he’s trying more to be funny than mean – but it is easy to get frustrated by his antics. This is particularly true because he’s good enough now that with a little focus he could become really good.
Last fall as an assistant coach on the team, I found myself more often than not feeling annoyed with Harvey. This was mostly because he was strong with the ball and I wanted him to build on that by starting to build on the next set of skills – passing and moving into good scoring positions. But he wouldn’t pass. I found myself defending him much more closely than others during various drills to force him into passing. I did this to show him the advantage he could gain by passing to a teammate then moving into a spot where he could receive a pass in a better position. Unfortunately, these efforts did not meet with much success. Instead, Harvey took them mostly as a challenge to put his head down and see if he could beat the coach. He generally was not successful, but in the end neither was I.
This spring we both get to try again.
The first practice didn’t start off any better. Harvey dove into the pile of kids sitting around the coach. During a relay race he pushed his way to the front and then got in the way as his teammates tried to complete their turns. And during scrimmage time, he continued to bull his way around. If he had the ball in the offensive end, he was heading for the goal, no matter how wide open his teammates were, no matter how many defenders were stacked up in his way. I kept telling him to pass. He kept on plowing ahead.
Then came Thursday’s second practice. It was a rainy, wet afternoon and the practice field was pretty muddy. I had decided I was not going to get drawn into trying to coerce this kid into doing exactly what he was supposed to do. I figured that ultimately he’s looking for the extra attention that comes with adult attempts to keep him in line so, while I’d call him out for messing around, I decided I would do so in as placid a voice as I could muster. I wanted to make my corrections quick, dull, and uninteresting and then keep moving the practice along. The less time and energy expended on nuisance moments the better. I wasn’t going to assert my authority and demand his obeisance. I was going to act as if I knew he would do what I asked of him and didn’t have to dwell on it to make sure.
How effective this strategy was, I’m not really sure. Harvey threw a stick at one point – he was far away from others – and at another point knocked over the small goal we have on the field. Each time I corrected him and went directly back to what we were doing, pointedly not waiting to see if he would follow my instruction. Whether or not this mattered to him, I can’t say, but it helped me a great deal. I didn’t have to worry about trying to win a confrontation with him. I could just go on doing the work I wanted to do. Because I knew that he didn’t want to be left out of anything, I figured that he’d come back in to the team as long as I kept going. And if he didn’t, well that would be okay too. I would just keep working with the rest of the players.
As it turns out, he did come back in, and a little while later, in the midst of a round of sharks and minnows, his shoe came untied. This is a pretty common thing with soccer cleats. Every game there seems to be at least two or three kids running around with their laces flopping or their shoes halfway off. It’s frustrating, uncomfortable, and dangerous for the kids so we try to stop things when we can to get their laces re-tied. I used to ask kids to do it themselves, but now I just go and take care of it because I have a better chance of getting the laces to stay than the kids. So, while everyone is resetting, I go over and kneel down to tie Harvey’s shoes. I quietly say some meaningless words to him about how tough it is to run with shoes untied, and he replies that the laces use to be better but recently they’ve been coming undone a lot. It wasn’t until later that evening as I was drifting off to sleep that I realized this was probably the first time I’d talked to him one-on-one outside the context of coaching. It was a very human exchange in both its banality and its significance. The words were meaningless, but the act of quietly conversing itself mattered in some way.
In the next round Harvey said that he wanted to be a shark and started to knock his ball out of bounds. As he did this, I told him that wasn’t going to work, that he would have to earn it instead. To my surprise, he shrugged and took off dribbling the ball, making it safely to the other side. So, on the next round I gave him what he asked for. I came after him hard. He dodged a couple of times but I was able to knock his ball away and thus transform him into a shark. It was a little quid pro quo intended to show him that I appreciated his doing what I had asked.
Later, when it was time to let a couple of the kids start off the game as sharks, I chose Harvey as one of the first three. There was more than a bit of prodigal son narrative at work in this choice as there were plenty of other kids who had listened well and done exactly what I’d asked of them. But I was feeling the presence of a window of opportunity with Harvey and was willing to risk some frustration or jealousy from the other kids in order to positively recognize his earlier effort.
Ultimately, I don’t know whether that moment of tying his shoes made any real difference in Harvey’s attitude towards things – that will remain to be seen. But it did impact the way I look at him. In the wake of that meaningful exchange of meaningless words, I think of him now as someone who gets yelled at a lot and as such has learned to largely tune that kind of communication out. So, I have decided to be patient and grab what opportunities I can to praise him when he does something well. This means I’m no longer going to yell at him to pass the ball. I’m just going to wait. He’ll do it as some point – probably inadvertently or without thinking – and I’ll be there to praise him for it. I willing to bet that catching a couple of those opportunities will get me a whole lot farther than constant harping has so far.
And if it doesn’t, at least it’s a much more pleasant way to handle something he’s going to do anyway.