This week I'm featuring a blog post from my friend and former colleague Chris Smith. Chris was the very first head coach I worked with and is currently a lead development coach for Nottingham Forest academy. In this blog, Chris talks about celebrating a goal from his Under-7 team and the underlying work behind that goal that no one sees.
"We've just scored a last minute winner, without thinking I jump up and punch the air. I might have made a noise, who knows. My colleague, coaching on the next pitch turns around, I'm not sure if the look on his face is confusion or disappointment, "Calm down, Mourinho" he says.
Here's how I attempt to justify celebrating a goal in an Under 7's tournament...
For those of us that work with young players, there is no such thing as 'one game' or 'one goal', certainly not in isolation. We've seen the journey, the high and lows. We've seen the hard work and the learning that has gone in to that player being in that position at that time and taking that shot. It doesn't happen in one second in one match, it happens because of every second that player turns up and practices with a great attitude, because of every time they spend hours in the garden with a ball, every time they play with their friends in school. That goal isn't the hard work, that goal is the payoff for that work, a moment they can enjoy, remember and tell their friends about.
I celebrated because of who scored the goal, because I'd seen his journey. At least part of it.
I work at a Development Centre for a Championship club, just below academy level. When I took over my Under 7 group back in November, one face stood out. Polite, sociable and with the biggest smile I've ever seen. He listened, played with the amount of chaotic energy only a 7 year old can and thanked me before leaving. That smile never left his face, and it hasn't for 6 months.
But I was a little worried. Compared to others in the group, he seemed to take longer to understand or struggled to keep his focus. His technique would let him down, not because it wasn't there, but he would get rushed or kick the ball before thinking. He is 7, this is all fine and normal, the most important thing is that he's still enjoying himself, the smile is still there every week.
Then I saw it. The week before we had worked on movement off the ball, this week I saw him make a darting run in to space to receive a throw-in. I was sure I hadn't seen it before. Then it happened again. And again. It didn't look completely natural, I could see he was giving it some thought. His teammates were noticing, he was receiving the ball in space. This time maybe he put so much thought in to the movement, he wasn't prepared for what to do next. But it came, the movements became more natural, he had space and time to think. Suddenly he began to trust his technique and good things were happening. Week after week he seemed to add an extra string to his bow.
In my short coaching career, I've not seen a player make such visible and noticeable progress in such a short space of time, in this case just a few weeks. When the next Under 7's Inter-Development Centre Games Program came around again, I was excited to have him involved. But as sometimes happens, things didn't go to plan, more precisely, not to the coach's plan anyway.
Our goalkeepers train separately to us, different pitch, different night. When we have games, it is more than likely the outfield players (and coach!) haven't met the goalkeeper before. The one we were sent, this boy was incredible! I never thought I'd see a 7 year old coming of his line to catch a cross, he stopped anything that came close to him. Add in my new little superstar, we were looking in pretty good shape. Before the second of 3 games, my goalkeeper says to the team "I play outfield sometimes too, can i have a game out?", my little superstar tells the goalkeeper he will help out and go in goal this game, he likes to play in goal too. Who am i to argue with him? We lose 4-2, but my goalkeeper and player both come off smiling, they enjoyed their role reversal.
Fast forward to the last few minutes of the last game. My player doesn't need to prove anything, in the 6 months I have known him he has continued smiling, listening, working hard, asking questions and thanking me each session. I've enjoyed watching him play every week, in every way the model young player, no matter how effective his movement or touch. But when he pops up in the area in the last minute and scores that goal, I'm just extremely happy for him. That's all.
When we finish I say "Well done, you deserve that goal", he almost looks embarrassed, thanks me for letting him play and walks over to his mum, smiling the whole time. I don't think anything ever changed for him over those weeks, he plays football with his friends and it makes him happy. Long may this continue."
For the past few days I have been talking to my best friend about how I'm pulling my hair out over the emotional toll this job has taken on me, working with the sweetest kids on a regular basis just to have them or you depart and start over again with a new group of players. After telling him that sometimes I wished there was no emotional attachment between me and my players, he sent me a series of messages which I have composed into this heartfelt letter that I could not have said any better myself.
"It would be a real pity if your best quality (emotional attachment) is erased from this job.
Do you feel the difference between dedication towards your players and dedication towards your paycheck? The great thing about your job is that if your heart is in the right place and you are doing the best for your players, they will trust and listen to you and their parents will feel the same towards you.
Such quality is so hard to find in a world where everyone is working for penny to penny, paycheck to paycheck. Emotions are raw, humane and there are no side agendas accompanying them.
I know you grew up without a father or brother figure in your life, and you want to be that figure for the kids. But remember one thing: kids come and go, and they won't be with you forever. You are just a stop in their lives, but be the best stop in their lives. Show them that there is more than just football when you coach them, and that you are coaching them to become better human beings too, so that they can carry those qualities throughout the rest of their lives.
Teams come and go. Who knows, you might be the key factor in bringing up the new Del Piero, the new Totti, or the new John Terry when the world of football is judging good players by the number of titles and wealth they have.
Or they might never become great footballers, but instead become great human beings."
Last night was the first time in three days that I got a proper night's sleep. The trip has really taken a toll on me and my two colleagues, having to take care of 17 kids on a full time basis. Any person in their right mind would look at us and say we're crazy, and in all fairness during our down time we did look at each other and ask what the heck are we doing with our lives??? But deep down, I know that I cannot possibly see myself doing another job or sitting in an office for 8 hours a day rather than spending my time coaching, mentoring and being a friend for these kids.
During our movie night on Saturday, I asked the lad who I previously wrote about in my blog post what his favourite part of the trip is, to which he answered the football tournament itself. I asked him what about outside of football, and his answer was one that made the entire weekend worth it: "you".
I was hit with the reality that I am leaving Vietnam this Sunday midnight to take up a full time job as head of soccer at a summer camp in America. Knowing that I am a kid's favourite part of the trip epitomizes the best and worst thing about this job. You spend quality time getting to know and bonding with a player, but either you have to leave or they have to leave. It's heartbreaking to have to say goodbye to such a wonderful kid, but what happened here gives me a lot of hope and optimism about my next two months coaching soccer full time where I will meet 48 new players who will call me their coach and will put the same faith in me as these lads have.
By the end of the trip, before leaving the airport I told the lad that he is an amazing kid and that I want him to stay just the way he is. He in return said that I am an amazing coach, and gave me the tightest hug I have received in my life. Moments like these are the only thing keeping me in this job, and the only answer to the times when I rip my hair out thinking why am I even doing this at all.
Day 2 into my last Bangkok trip with my club has just ended. Today has been rough to say the least. I've had three injured players on my hands, dealing with all sorts of drama stretching from wakeup call to breakfast to the actual games themselves. Just when I thought my day couldn't get any busier and more tiring, one small event turned the day completely on its head and reminds me that being a coach is much more than just coaching soccer.
By the end of the day we gave our kids two choices between shopping at a mega mall in Bangkok or staying behind with me to watch a movie and order pizza. One kid who was badly injured during the gameday was forced to stay behind, and two kids followed suit. Just as we were about to go up to my room, one of them tarted sobbing. I pulled him to a private space and asked what was wrong, to which he answered that he wanted to get his mom a gift but could not because he hurt his heel during the day and was advised by his coach to stay behind and rest. The words that came out of his mouth and the tears that followed just took my heart away. I promised him I would help him find a gift for his mother. Just how in the world do you find kids which such a purely loving and kind heart these days?
What happened between me and that kid today reminded me of why I chose this job. There is so much than just soccer coaching. You are literally making a difference in these kids' lives, and just to see a pure and innocent, loving side of the kids that we adults ourselves lost on our way growing up is such an invaluable experience. It reminds us of what really matters in our lives and that at times we need to take a step back and realize there is more to youth coaching than just teaching the sports itself.
That will undoubtedly be one of the most treasured memories I will carry throughout my career.
So as I sit here writing this blog, I have only had five hours of sleep in the past 24 hours and my seven soccer kids are soundly asleep in our 4-bedroom rented suite in preparation for a long day of soccer matches tomorrow. Any person who looked at and interacted with me at the airport told me "Good luck, you're gonna need a lot of it!". So what exactly about this job that makes all this crap worth it? It's the kids themselves.
I have not been with SSA for the past year or so and have only returned due to a shortage of coaches, but I also could not turn down the chance to be working with the lads who I spent the beginning of my coaching career with. We have been a public disturbance everywhere we go in Bangkok, and granted I feel annoyed at times at the level of noise and craziness produced by my kids. But it doesn't actually make me feel mad. There is a special feeling to it, something that I have only found through coaching these young, energetic and crazy young soccer players!
Throughout the first day of the trip I had the chance of talking and sharing my experiences in coaching with this young group of lads who so innocently and enthusiastically asked me about my college experience (and also about my lovelife!). Seeing them comfortable around me throughout the trip was the most rewarding experience. I had a brief chat with my coworker who has probably been coaching for nearly as long as I have been alive! After asking him about how long he plans to stay in the business, I was told that there were and are times he has been considering his position, but insisted that the kids are the only good thing about the job. I could not agree more.
This is probably my last time with my beloved club and I am going to make every second of it a positive experience for the young players that have put their trust in me and feel comfortable calling me their coach.
About the Author
Bao "Terry" Cao is currently a coach at Manchester United Foundation and the FA Development Centre for girls. Terry is licensed by both the FA and USSF. He shares his personal experience of being involved in youth soccer as both a coach and an outside viewer.