Thursday, January 28, 2010

Story Of A Coach

I have had two lives in team sports, as a player and as a coach.

As a coach I had tremendous success. There were times that it was because I had very good players. In our neighbourhood back home the kids born in 76 and 77 included a flood of terrific athletes. I coached one or the other group for a number of years and we won a lot. A lot. But they won a lot when I wasn’t the coach too. Of the eight clubs that played together of these groups of kids they won six city championships in soccer. Five of those six clubs doubled by winning the league as well. The two that did not win the playoffs were also regular season champions and each lost their championship game in a shootout.

So yeah, they were good. And they had different coaches so I mostly stayed out of the way. I pushed and prodded and worked them and made sure they played as a team and that everyone had fun and they would not have won with a bad coach but I’m not fooling myself. Good players make the job of a coach easier.

I loved those Sudbury teams that won over and over again but there were two teams that were my favourites when it came to the soccer clubs. One team I really gloried in was a team I coached in Toronto, a bunch of neighbourhood kids in the neighbourhood league who started slowly and then came together over the season. A couple of very good players, some solid ones, some humps. Got them working hard and together and having fun. There were always girls on these teams and I was a master at putting them into positions to succeed and getting them to become major parts of the team’s success.

On this team I had a couple of tall blonde twins who were more interested in socializing than playing. Stereotypical princesses really, they were fourteen, all ponytails and makeup and trendy clothes. Pretty well useless on the field at the beginning of the year. I helped to change that.

In the final, one of the opposition’s stars roared up the sidelines and beside him all of the way was one of those girls, battling, all elbows jabbing, pushing, jersey tugging until the ball spun away from him and he turned, exhausted and discouraged (again) and trudged back up the sidelines. As the kids roared and I grinned her Mom began to give her the business about the elbows! I turned and told her to keep it down, that’s the way she was to play, tough as nails, and that was that. An hour later or so we had shut them down, just as we had shut down everyone we played in the playoffs and we were champions. We had clean sheets all through the playoffs and on each side at the back was a twin.

Man, I love winning.

I had a lot of success as a soccer coach, seven teams and five of those won either a playoff championship or a league championship or both and the sixth, another of my favourites, fell just short in the championship series (best of three) in the toughest most competitive league I ever coached in.

Only one mediocre team in the bunch.

As a hockey coach I was pretty successful as well. Ten clubs. Six of them won something and were quality squads, a seventh was also quite good. My favourite of the lot were The Missiles, the little squad that could and did.Of the remaining three clubs, two were okay and one was awful. The awful team was the only one I have ever had as a coach. We had been quality the year before and we had lost a handful of guys, guys who weren’t sexy but, well, you know, got things moving in the right direction when they were on the ice. Sound familiar? ;)

Still, we thought, even thought the quality was less, that we would be ok.

We were close but no cigar our first couple of games. A failure to finish our chances, a mistake or two that ended up in our net, a soft goal (sound familiar). A penalty at a bad time, a bad change, a missed assignment.

And after each game we bemoaned our bad luck.

And then a couple of games with bad luck became a half dozen. A couple of guys who had been terrific the year before were off. The replacements for the departures weren’t getting the job done. The goaltending was average.

And after each game we wondered what went wrong.

And after about a dozen games it became clear. We were a bad team. We weren’t getting much puck luck but mostly that was because we weren’t making anything happen. Our errors were glaring.

We had no margin for error. The other teams began to beat on us.

And from there the season went south. The replacements’ collective confidence was shaken but then again so were the holdovers. For that matter so was the coach’s.

We began to spiral and what had been close losses morphed into losses by three or four. Games where we had hung in with superior teams became one sided blowouts. Guys who had scored twenty five goals the year before in a forty four game schedule were hard pressed to hit double digits.

We were shattered.

As a coach it was my one bad experience out of nearly twenty seasons coaching. It was awful and when it ended we breathed a sigh of relief because if you are a bad team once the death spiral begins there’s no breaking out of it. Bag skates, enthusiastic speeches, yelling, pleading, threatening, cheering like a madman.

Its all for naught when you have a bad team in its death throes.


Swabbubba said...

This is true. The funk that the Oil are in has no cure. I watched the game last night. It is painful to watch

Bruce said...

I went to the game last night. It was painful to watch. The whole building was dead, the fans watched like zombies or so it seemed to this zombie. A few things happened but as a whole it was an event to be endured, not enjoyed.

Andrew Willis said...

My god, were you a fan of the Laurentian soccer team in Sudbury? If there was one amateur team that I loathed through the mid to late nineties, it was the Voyageurs (well, them and the U of T Blues, but that was more respectfully).

Being a part of the York soccer programme, it wasn't the fans or even the team up there that drove us nuts: it was the worst hometown ref in the history of sports. That guy would dole out red cards to visiting teams for "fouls" that shouldn't have even been whistled down. I remember in one game, a playoff game, no less, when we were up 3 - 0 with about 10 minutes to go. He called a penalty shot against us on a call that nobody, not even the Voyageur coach, could understand. That made it 3 - 1. A couple of minutes later he didn't call an offside on another play where TWO attackers were 15 yards behind our last defenseman. No joke, 15 yards. Our goalie just stood there in disbelief as the predictable cross was headed in behind him like it was a hockey goal-mouth tap-in. Thankfully, the ref couldn't figure out any other ways to butcher that game and we won, later going on to beat U of T and head to the National Finals.

My favourite story about that ref was from a few years before that, though, when the Blues had to play them up there in the playoffs. The coach had filed a formal complaint to the league and requested another set of officials for the game, which had been granted. To his dismay, as U of T was warming up, the dirty ref pulled up in all of his gear and ran out on to the pitch. Zorbos (the Blues' coach) immediately called his team to the bench, took a quick poll, and they all decided to boycott the game. Skipping a playoff game would have meant missing the last game in the CIAU career of a handful of the players, but they weren't willing to suffer through another officiating disaster. As they were boarding the bus to leave, an out of town official showed up, sent the homer away, and the game was played out. I wasn't there and can't remember who won (we were knocked out by Queen's that year, I think), but we all gained a measure of respect for Zorbos and the Blues at the time.

It's odd to think that you might have been one of the fans cheering on the dreaded Voyageurs way back when...

Black Dog said...

Bruce - yeah that one sounded like one of the worst yet.

Andrew - no, that was after my time plus when I was in school I was in Toronto except for the summers. A friend of mine was likely on the Voyageurs' staff in the mid 90s though, he runs the program now.

I have my own soccer reffing horror story. One of those two years where we lost in a shootout I had two players redcarded in the final (in all of the years the team played we never had one card) - both were absolutely ticky tack - two of our best players too.

With nine guys we still carried the play until we scored with about ten minutes left. They waved it off as an offside - it was clear to everyone that it was not but the ref was actually talking to one of the players on the other team when the play happened.

Ref was a kid who shouldn't have been doing the game. Even the other club said after the game taht they didn't deserve it.