In 1988, my school’s soccer team was supposed to be good, finally. Win a few games. Have a winning record. Maybe go to the playoffs…

Five years earlier I’d secured my first job out of college. An independent school had offered me a position for which I was perfectly suited: teaching English and developing a soccer program. In addition to my love of language and literature, I’d fallen in love with the game around 1970, when neighbors back from Peru introduced me to it. Back then, few Americans knew much about soccer, but I grew up in a rare U.S. soccer hotbed. And I’ve always loved how the sport makes ample room for diverse types of athletes to show tremendous individual creativity and flair within a strong team concept.

Studying and Playing the Game

Like most young athletes, I strived to emulate certain players. One of my favorites was Vladislav Bogicevic, a Yugoslavian who played for the New York Cosmos in their glory days. Bogie had magical skills and amazing vision. Rather than look to score, he continually tried to make unexpected and perfect passes. He derived pleasure from untangling the knots and making others look good. Without knowing it, I was absorbing the essence of servant leadership.

I went on to play at the collegiate and semiprofessional levels, stretching myself in ways I couldn’t do in any other sport. I studied the sport’s history, pored over the few coaching guides available in the U.S., analyzed broadcasts from Europe on the local PBS affiliates, and then ran into the backyard to practice new moves. It was my ultimate growth experience.

As an example, my most influential coach regularly switched our positions and shifted our formations. Sometimes we grew frustrated, unsure of our roles; but we found joy in the challenge, too. This went on throughout the season, until we developed cohesion as we deepened our understanding of the sport. We learned the intricacies that eluded others. This empowered many of us to play at higher levels and to coach. I now parrot one of my coach’s adages: “Sometimes you have to make a real mess in the kitchen when you’re baking a delicious cake. 

From Brooding to Having Fun

In 1988, I was simply making a mess. We had not done well our first few years — for basic reasons: It was a new program, we were a very small school playing giant public schools, and I sometimes used middle schoolers on varsity. As double-digit losses mounted, even a single goal felt victorious. Still we toiled, chins up, focused on the future, while the constant losing ached. Gradually we improved and put up a fight. In the fifth year, we all thought we could truly compete.

We began the season poorly, and things grew worse — mainly because of my response. I berated the players, and I kept trying to force them to play a more sophisticated game than they could. I filled practices with more punishment than coaching. Never did I question my approach, and my mood grew darker and darker. Finally, after one particularly disheartening loss, I brooded alone for hours. Suddenly I burst, “What are you doing? This isn’t how you want to coach. What is this supposed to be about?”

The next day, I talked with my assistant coach for a long time. Practice that day was very different. I began by apologizing for how I had been treating my team, as players and as people. In turn, they accepted responsibility for certain behavior. We had a lengthy, intense discussion. Training became fun again, and we went on to win four of our last five matches.

Fulfilling Potential

Two years later, I had a fabulous squad, many of these same players returning to the team, along with some strong new boys. Expectations were sky high. A ref told me after a preseason scrimmage, “You are loaded for bear!”

At the time, I did not understand how the pieces were going to mesh, especially in the complex way I preferred to organize a team on the field. I could see the potential, but it wasn’t gelling yet. More than anything, I knew I didn’t want to repeat recent history. So I rethought my tactics and designed a team concept based on the players’ strengths rather than a standard formation.

We kept practices demanding but also light, full of fun and games, and laughter. We won every regular season match. Before the playoffs, I scheduled an extra match against a team I knew could beat us. I also experimented with some ideas in that game. The loss was a relief. After all, we’d never had a winning record before, and now people wanted us to go undefeated. We won the first two playoff games, putting us in the final. The entire school was on edge in anticipation. When we had our team meeting as part of our final practice, I sent everyone out not to train, but to play in the mud after some recent rains. The next day we won the state championship.

Hurting and Healing

I’m incredibly proud of that championship, but the title is not what means the most to me. Many coaches could have won it with that talented team. However, I couldn’t have done it without slogging through the muddy trenches of two years before — and certainly not without working through that frustration and recreating the season. I had to ask myself some really hard questions and accept answers I didn’t like. Then I had to change my behavior accordingly. If I hadn’t, good boys would have endured miserable experiences mainly because of me. My ego was damaging theirs.

In both seasons I learned and taught some important life lessons: that humility both hurts and heals. That experience, along with many other losses and triumphs, reminds me that learning and growing and improving are never-ending — even as a “wise” adult.