Soccer Poet

The Good Fight

The Good Fight

“The problem with instant gratification is that it takes too long.”

  • Anonymous

Suddenly awash in a new wave of free time, I’ve been doing a lot more reading about the culture of youth soccer and athletics in general. The blogosphere is heavy with articles of this genre, and as a newly minted man of leisure, I’ve indulged in many of them. As one might expect when exploring this particular brand of material, you don’t have to read very far before crossing paths with that most sinister E-word – Entitlement. And the carnival that is college athletics gifted us another shining example this past week when a strength coach at Tulane was fired for making a bowler run as punishment for being an hour late to a session. Yeah, feel free to re-read that last sentence. Surely there is more to this story so I’m not choosing sides, but the early reports suggest that the bowler’s parents got upset with the strength coach, called the AD, and the coach was terminated. Voila! Instant viral story.

So much has been written in the coaching world about the epidemic of entitlement – of how we are raising a generation of kids allergic to accepting responsibility for their own lot in life, swept away by the notion that the universe is perpetually in their debt and thus obligated to vaporize each and every obstacle to their immediate happiness, on and off the field. I’ve coached college soccer for 24 years and I can tell you, it’s not like the problem has never been there. Spoiled kids aren’t unique to soccer and they weren’t invented in the new millennium. But I can assure you that in my experience, their numbers have grown with each passing year.

It’s sad to imagine our Rudys being overrun by a generation of Veruca Salts, and that’s what drives bloggers to their keyboards. Most of the articles I’ve come across were written by coaches – frustrated coaches – throwing a Hail Mary on the interthingy, hoping desperately to spread awareness, influence parents, and score a victory for the greater good. I’d imagine plenty of other coaches, myself included, are wishing them the very best of luck.

But I’m here to tell ya that the news isn’t all bad. The Rudys may be getting overrun in the blogosphere, but they’re still out there if you know where to look. Yesterday, Glenn Crooks – former Rutgers coach and now broadcaster for NYFC of the MLS – pointed out an uplifting article about Caley Chelios, the daughter of NHL star Chris Celios. Caley barely played on the Northwestern lacrosse team for her first three seasons but her sticktuitiveness has paid off in this her senior year.

Bloggers spend so much time writing in gross generalities about the players who get it wrong, maybe it would be more effective (and enjoyable) to write about a player who got it right. Maybe turning this issue inside-out will bring it closer to home.

I actually wrote my own dispatch on this topic, but it wasn’t intended for public consumption. It was a letter I wrote to a player I was coaching at Georgia. Due to ummm – recent developments – that letter has been declassified. I’ll share it with you here. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll find it just a little bit uplifting. If you do, I hope you’ll share it with your little athlete.

This one is coming from the heart. I hope you enjoy it.

First, let me give you some background on a center back we had at UGA.

Jenna Buckley was a five-star recruit in high school – an amazing talent with top tier speed. By all accounts, she was an absolute flier! Then, in April of 2008, her senior year, she blew out her knee… on Senior Night no less. It was a harbinger of Jenna’s soccer fortunes for the next few years and it forced her to red-shirt her freshman season at Georgia.

Jenna dutifully tended to her rehab. Her knee recovered and eventually she returned to the field, but she never regained her track star speed. As a matter of fact, she became rather… slow. Not exactly the signature quality one looks for in a defender.

Jenna didn’t get much playing time when she returned to action in 2009, but she saw a chance for a new beginning with the arrival of a new coaching staff for the 2010 season. She won a starting position for our opening game that season, but she was eventually beaten out by a freshman named Torri Allen. It was horribly frustrating for Jenna. Even with the new staff, she was right back to Square One. More frustrating still, her ability wasn’t the culprit – she was every bit talented enough to be in the starting line-up, and her soccer IQ was off the charts – it was that darn knee; it had just made her too slow. Had she maintained her speed, Jenna’s playing prospects would have been virtually guaranteed.

Imagine knowing that if your body hadn’t betrayed you, you’d be playing college soccer instead of watching it. Imagine the maddening existence of knowing that an injury, something you didn’t deserve and couldn’t control, has shattered your dream into a million little pieces. Imagine living with that… every. damn. day.

But here’s the thing – Jenna is smart. I don’t mean like typical smart; I mean like out-of- this-world smart. She’s got book-smarts and soccer-smarts and common sense and she’s got a lot of all three. Facing a situation that would lead many other players to check out and blame their predicament on everyone but themselves, Jenna did nothing of the sort. She realized that feeling sorry for herself wasn’t going to fix the problem, so she just put her head down and kept doing the one thing she knew how to do – her best.

On Wednesday nights I’d meet with the defenders to review video of our most recent games. At certain points I’d freeze the video and ask the players, “Okay, what should happen next?” Or, “Where should this player be moving to?” I wanted each player to understand not only her position, but also the positions of all the other defenders. So I’d show them these situations and ask them to give me the answers.

During one of these meetings, I noticed that Jenna was answering the majority of the questions, and she wasn’t exactly knocking people out of the way to do it. She would sit there and wait until it was obvious that no one else knew the answer, and then she would, almost regretfully, answer the question with absolute precision.

The starters could answer most of the questions, but never all of them. Jenna, on the other hand, could spit out the answer to each and every question I asked. This became a bit of a trend. Each week there was at least one question that no one could answer except Jenna. I was stunned that a player who rarely got on the field understood the material better than any of the starters. ‘How is that possible,’ I wondered.

If you’ve never spent much time doing what I do, it’s hard to explain the remoteness of this as a possibility and how impressive a feat this really was. Almost without exception, when it comes to video sessions, a player’s level of interest – and thus her comprehension – is directly proportional to her playing time. Let’s face it; no one gets too excited about dissecting video from a game where she didn’t even get on the field. And to be honest, sometimes playing time isn’t even enough to capture their focus. Jenna’s comprehension was a total anomaly. She was an outlier, and an impressive one at that. One night I pulled Jenna aside and quietly asked how she always knew the answers. “I just pay attention,” she said. Naturally.

Jenna easily could’ve checked out. I’ve seen plenty of players who lost hope and checked out after just a game or two of sitting the bench. And Jenna had a really wonderful excuse to fall back on – that stupid knee. I mean, this situation was genuinely beyond her control. She was a legitimate victim of circumstance, and nothing was ever going to make her fast again. Jenna was a very talented player, but her chances of playing were slimmer because we almost never substituted our defenders. At the start of 2011, her fourth season of college soccer, Jenna still wasn’t playing!

But Jenna never did check out. She never sat around feeling sorry for herself and blaming her coaches or her teammates or her knee. She never once mailed in her effort at practice. Her training habits never dipped. She focused on the things she could control and did her best to own every single one of those things. And she was smart enough to realize that one day her chance might come again, and if it did, she was damn sure gonna be prepared. So she paid attention.

Early in 2011, our starting center back got injured very late in a game. Jenna got to start the next match and, wouldn’t you know, she was absolutely sensational! She ran the defense like she’d been doing it all along. She never put a foot wrong and helped us lock down a difficult shutout. Her understanding of the position was so remarkable that by the end of the game, Jenna Buckley was anointed as our new starting center back. It was a position she held onto for the rest of the year.

We made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament that year. In our first-round game against Kansas, Jenna assisted the game-winning goal. Our season ended six days later at Duke. Jenna would graduate a month after that and everyone figured she was done with college soccer.

I didn’t recruit Jenna Buckley to Georgia when she was coming out of high school. She was already a Bulldog when I arrived. But now I found myself recruiting her to stay at Georgia. Having red-shirted as a freshman, Jenna had the option of playing out her eligibility or accepting any one of the myriad of seriously high-paying job offers that a brain like hers commands.

I didn’t want Jenna to leave and she knew that. Not only was she a fantastic player, she was also one of my favorite people. Seeing all that she had overcome to earn her spot on the field, well, how could you not root for a kid like that? But it looked fairly certain that Jenna was going to finish out the fall semester then be whisked away to a high-powered Wall Street investment firm. I never asked her directly. I didn’t want to add a distraction to our season and, if I’m being completely honest, I wasn’t prepared to hear her rejection. I chose to bury my head in the sand and hope for the best and imagine the day when Jenna would walk into my office, smile brightly and announce she was staying. So I waited. And waited. And I waited until I couldn’t afford to wait any more. Our season had ended. Time had grown short and I had to make a move. UGA Soccer needed to recruit Jenna Buckley. Again.

I didn’t want to just have a talk with Jenna. I wanted something more permanent, something she could hold in her hands and look at over and over. So I decided to write her a letter.

I found that letter in my computer files the other day, and that’s really the whole point of this entry. It was a nice reminder that there are still plenty of good kids who take responsibility for their own lot in life and who don’t crumble when things turn against them. If you are the parent of a soccer player – or just a parent at all – I’ll leave it to you to figure out on which side of the fence you and your child will choose to fall. Just remember, it really is a choice that you get to make.

Hey Jenna-

You obviously know where I stand. You know I want you to come back and play out your eligibility and lead our defense to new heights. But I don’t think I’ve ever really explained why. And when I do explain why, I’m almost positive there’s no way for you to fully comprehend and internalize what I mean. But I’m gonna try.

First of all, (and I want to be perfectly clear about this) yes, my motives are completely selfish. I want you to stay because I think you’re great for the team and that you will help us win. I think we are better with you than without you and that’s reason enough for me to want you here. But that’s just scratching the surface as I am way more selfish than that.

Jenna, I love being your coach more than you can possibly imagine and I’m going to tell you why. I’ve been coaching college soccer for 21 years. And for 21 years I’ve dealt with every possible category of underachiever. I’ve dealt with every conceivable variety of victim. I’ve dealt with an assembly line of players who held everyone and everything except themselves responsible for their lot in (soccer) life. For 21 years I’ve told these players that the best they can do is to choose how to respond in a way that will change their soccer lives for the better. And I have told them exactly how they should respond. Year after year I’ve given them road maps. I’ve told them exactly what they needed to do and how to get there. And almost without exception, what they said they wanted did not match up with their physical and emotional response. Their effort was not proportionate to their goals. In a sense, they quit. They gave up hope when things didn’t immediately turn in their favor. They phoned in their effort at practice. They tuned out at meetings. As you might expect, they spent their careers mired in mediocrity, mining up one excuse after another, blaming their coaches every step of the way.

Jenna, I rooted so hard for so many of those kids. I really believed in so many of them… that if they just kept the faith and genuinely did their very best each and every day, that they could change their own destinies. I knew in my heart that they had it within them. But they just couldn’t find the resolve to keep grinding when they weren’t reaping immediate rewards. They could never get their head around the idea of a long-term investment. I’ve had my heart broken by more of those players than you’ll ever know. The frustration of seeing one player after another, year after year after year, not digging in and putting up a stinkin’ fight is so damn demoralizing, Jenna. And then you know that they’ll be back again the following fall and their situation won’t be any different and they’ll just point the finger at their coach and say, “His fault.”

This, I’ve learned, is the life of a coach.

And then you came along.

You came into my life and made me remember that this is what I originally thought coaching would be like… players digging in and doing their best and fighting the good fight day after day after day, supporting their teammates regardless of their individual desires while continuing to hold themselves to the highest possible standards. Jenna, you are not a once-in-a-lifetime talent, but you are a once-in-a-lifetime spirit. You’re the spirit that a coach is just happy to see every day. You’re the spirit that a coach watches and then wonders why so and so can’t be more like you. You’re the one we thought we’d be surrounded by.

You know Jenna, I don’t think it’s too difficult to know what the right thing is. As a matter of fact, I think most players know the right thing to do to improve their soccer life. I think that knowing is the easy part. But actually acting on that knowledge… actually making that conscious choice day after day after day and having faith that eventually it will work out… well, I think that’s just too much to ask of most people. And that, my friend, is the defining quality that will forever separate you from the legions of soccer players I have ever and will ever coach. I will be forever thankful for that. I will be forever thankful for that one kid who didn’t assign her lot in life to outside forces; who instead took responsibility for her own fate and chose the best possible response each and every day even when it would have been so much easier to lay down. So many players have been in your exact situation. So many had the opportunity to respond with their very best and to really make a case for themselves. But I only know of one who genuinely did. I waited twenty stinkin’ years to find you. Two decades! And Jenna, when I speak to the soccer gods about you, all I can really tell them is, It’s about damn time.

But you know what the best part of it is, Jenna? It’s seeing the player I root for finally break through and get rewarded. It’s seeing the kid who never gave up finally get her time in the spotlight… and seeing her make the most of it. If you only knew how much it made my heart swell when you took the field against Duke last week. I was so very proud of you because there was only one reason you were on that field – you freaking earned it.

You’re going to make your mark on this world, Jenna Buckley. You’re going to go on to do great things and you’re going to be the envy of countless people and touch countless lives. And I will remember you for a lot of wonderful reasons that have nothing to do with kicking a ball. But make no mistake… I will also remember you for being one helluva soccer player.

You know, when I was a player, I knew that my coaches had a huge influence on my life. They affected me greatly with their decisions. That was so easy to see. But I never stopped to consider that I was also having an effect on their lives. I think you should know that you have had an effect on my life, and in the best possible way.

Jenna, I hope you stay with us. I hope you come back and lead our defense for one more season. But if you don’t, I want you to know that coaching you has been one of the most inspirational experiences of my career, and for many years to come I will be telling unhappy players about this girl I used to coach and how she responded to her situation and how in her senior year she was a starting center back at the University of Georgia.

And oh yeah… by the way… you will never, ever regret playing one more season of college soccer. That’s the only promise I’ll ever make to you.

Sincerely,

Dan

Jenna stayed. Two months after I sent her this letter, Jenna’s teammates elected her captain. On the night our season ended that year, no one cried harder than she did.

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updated: 2 years ago