Every week, I try to make the last words that I say to my team exactly the same. “Enjoy it”, I say. And I mean it. I won’t lie though. I desperately want them to win because I know that winning football matches is a great deal more enjoyable than losing them. It’s simple really. But I always tell them ‘enjoy it’.
There’s no doubt that there’s a boat load of enjoyment to be had from running a kids’ football team. Certainly that’s what everyone will tell you. It’ll be a tonne of fun. They’re right as well. It is fun. So why am I currently turning our form into some kind of personal crisis then? Well let me attempt an explanation.
“I take it all very personally”
First up – and I know from conversations with other coaches that I’ve got no exclusivity here – I take it all very personally. When I played, as a kid and as a much younger man, I wanted to win. Desperately. Now, as an adult, I won’t ever send a team out thinking that any of us will enjoy it if we get beat. I certainly won’t. I don’t even enjoy it when we’ve got beat and played well. I might tell the kids that it was enjoyable to watch, but that’s a carefully placed white lie. When I played I would brood on defeats or bad performances for days on end. Nowadays, as a coach, it wakes me up in the middle of the night. ‘What could I have done to prevent that from happening?’ I tell the kids that I enjoyed watching them play, but inside I’m already asking myself how I could have changed things in order to avoid that defeat. Or I’m wondering how what we did in training on the Thursday and what we spoke about before kick-off didn’t make it to the match.
Kids don’t enjoy defeat either, especially when it’s a run of them. This thing that was meant to be fun isn’t anything like fun when the other team are laughing at you or celebrating yards away as you sit and have a drink of water miserably at the end of the game.
“I didn’t shout and bawl and I wasn’t cruel.”
And then as a coach, what do I say? I understand the need for positivity, but I think sometimes you have to be human too. Sometimes I just find it really tough to choose my words. And it becomes something that I worry about. Another reason to lie awake on a Saturday night. After our last game, and at the end of the four game losing streak that kind of prompted this blog, I’d had enough. I didn’t shout and bawl and I wasn’t cruel. But I couldn’t tell them lies. Not on this occasion. It had genuinely felt like every instruction given had been ignored. It had genuinely felt like, as coaches, we’d been let down. Of course I didn’t tell them that, but they were left in no doubt that they simply hadn’t been good enough. We’d been forced to make three substitutions because of the attitude of some of the boys and the fact that they’d decided to shout at not just the ref, but their coaches, parents and each other too. Of course, I then worried about that as well! Should I have been negative? Did I need to say anything? Would I need to sit them down again before the next training session and be all ‘cuddly’ and positive? In the end I said no more, but I must have thought it through at least a dozen times in the days between the game and training.
I did end up spending even more hours on football that week coming up with a code of conduct for the boys with some ‘rules’ and sanctions. I gave it out at training still feeling like I might be taking it all too seriously, but then comforted myself later with the thought that I’d taken out the bit where I wanted them to sign it! I’d planned to photocopy each of the signed code of conducts, so that I had a copy as well as the boys! I’m still keeping it in mind for next season though! After all, they’ll be coming up to 12 by then…
As coaches we took that day personally. In the heat of the moment I genuinely considered quitting as it just felt like I wasn’t making any kind of difference any more. As I do on many a Sunday, I found some time to sit and think things through in the afternoon after the game and came to the conclusion that I was taking things a little too seriously. There was no option but to carry on, making sure that training was purposeful and fun and that we worked more towards getting things right in games. After all, it’s an under 11s team, not someone fighting to win the Champions’ League. But it demonstrates how easy it is to become completely obsessed by the small part we play in football. And I’m sure I’m not alone in being this way. I hope I’m not, anyway!
“…I’ve allowed running a team to become too big a part of my life.”
The lengths I go to and the time I put into my team probably pales into insignificance when measured against some coaches. But I still feel that I’ve allowed running a team to become too big a part of my life. In the lead up to a game I can be regularly found scribbling down teams and formation on the backs of envelopes or scraps of paper. I’ll invariably then proceed to lose the envelope and have to search out another one and do it all over again! The trouble is that a combination of a big squad of players – we have 16 kids for a 9-a-side team – and a poor memory means that every team is different again as I forget a player and include someone else. Suffice to say the whole envelope thing can be unnecessarily stressful!
I used to keep a record of every game we played as well. I’d mark each player out of ten, record scorers and write a paragraph or two about how we’d played and things to change. Family life and work has put pay to that particular obsession though as I can just never find the time anymore. Again though, the little orange book is something I’m thinking of bringing back for next year!
When I’ve got time I get out my little magnetic board with the counters that represent players and play about with it, working out who’d be best where and what I’d need to tell them in order to get the best out of them in said position. I haven’t yet had the bottle to use it at an actual match, but the time will come when I finally convince myself that it’s not that embarrassing and that it’s what other coaches do! I’ll stress myself out about that too.
“…please don’t get me started on dog walkers!”
And then, in terms of obsession and crisis, we get to the pitch. Our pitch takes up so much of my time that it’s criminal really. I live quite close to the club, so in times of bad weather I’m forever thinking about it. What will that near side touchline be like? Will the top goalmouth be holding water? Is the grass too long in the corners and is it possible that my lines have disappeared again? As a further consequence of living close, I’m forever checking the weather forecast for the week a well, just in case there’s a few days worth of rain that I need to panic about while being unable to actually do anything about it.
All this is of course before we even touch on the subject of kids using the pitch to ride bikes on. And please don’t get me started on dog walkers! It seems that every time I go over to re-paint the lines someone has let their dog use our pitch as a toilet and then conveniently not noticed! And I swear that every time I’m leaving having re-done those lines someone will proceed to walk their dog over our pitch, even though they can see me coming out of the clubhouse! I’m beginning to feel paranoid; that someone is watching me paint the lines while simultaneously winding up Fido ready to go and run all over our grass!
It gets worse. I can often be found hanging out of my bedroom window, craning my neck to see if I can get a view of the pitch from about 400 metres away. I can’t, but it never stops me trying! Sometimes I’ll see dog walkers or, Heaven forbid, kids playing football and quietly curse to myself while trying not to worry too much. I’ve genuinely become a pitch bore and I fear that I may need to seek some kind of professional help in order to shake the disease.
The final form of obsession can be found on the morning of any match. As a supporter I’ve been ridiculously superstitious for as long as I can remember. Nothing too crazy…just the lucky pants, the lucky socks, the lucky top, not using any plates, bowls or mugs that are the same colour as opposition shirts, the lucky pebbles found on a beach stuffed into coat pockets, buying a programme from the same place week in, week out. Just the kind of things I’ve found as a Newcastle United fan that are proven to work and responsible for all of our success over the years. I mean you can’t always rely on the likes of Mike Ashley, Joe Kinnear and Alan Pardew.
As a coach I’m much the same. If we lose I won’t wear the same top for the next game. I’ll change tracksuit bottoms after a bad result too. I put things out in a certain order when I get to the pitch. I haven’t quite got to the lucky pebble level yet, but I know it’ll happen. I just haven’t found the right pebble yet!
We finally have a game again this weekend after the last four were postponed due to the weather. After what has felt like months and months being obsessed and feeling like I’m in the middle of some kind of personal crisis I have an outlet! I hope that we go out and play well. I hope that the formation I’ve been considering will work and that the changes I’m planning won’t be too much. I hope we can win. And, you know obviously, I hope everyone enjoys themselves. Whatever happens I’m sure I’ll sulk and moan and overthink every last second of it!