Reflecting on yesterday’s problematic football training with the U15 boys, I remembered a phrase that I have heard many times. ‘Take your opportunities when they come.’
Clearly, I didn’t take my opportunity to lead the boys well, due to language, lack of preparation, perhaps a lack of authority, but also due to their mis-behaviour and lack of respect and listening. But today we have more training and I don’t know if any other coaches will be there. If there aren’t, I have to be ready; I have to take my opportunity.
I send a message to the head coach who is on holiday. He hasn’t communicated anything so I ask him if I need to prepare something (but am actually hoping he will say he’ll be back, or that someone else will be leading). That answer doesn’t come and instead he simply replies “Always good to be prepared.”
Oh crap! There cannot be a repeat of yesterday, so I plan, write and draw out 2 activities that I think they will engage with and which will help them in their preparations for the knock-out phase of their local championship in 2 days time. But surely someone else will be there to help coach?!
I arrive well ahead of time to set up and as I stand on the pitch I think of another famous phrase: ‘Sink or swim.’ Rightly or wrongly I feel that I’ve been put into this situation that is now going to make me or break me as a coach in Brazil. If things don’t go well today, I’m going to have to seriously question my involvement with the teenage boys. All of my coaching experience has been with younger ages. My job when I’m in England is a Primary School teacher, not Secondary. Here, I coach U10 boys every week and whilst the language barrier is still present, they are much more forgiving of my errors than the older boys. If the little ones don’t listen, I’m more able to get their attention, plus the way we train is different. I know a lot about football, so knowledge isn’t a problem, although implementing this with teenage boys is different.
My secret hope of another coach being there soon evaporates, although I spend the first 15 minutes frequently looking behind me to see if someone will arrive. Mercifully only 8 boys are there for the start time – much easier to cope with, plus 2 of them speak English! The first activity goes well and as I’m now aware that I am more than likely going to be the only coach today, I begin thinking of other activities. I’m swimming, not sinking! In fact, I’m beginning to feel more confident and more relaxed and begin to interact more with the boys. Frustratingly, the speed at which things happen in football mean that by the time someone has done something, I’m not yet able to translate the words I want to say quickly enough to make constructive points. So by enlarge, I am quiet and watch them. I know this is not ideal, but at least the boys are able to train today.
More boys arrive which sets a new challenge. Late arrivals are completely normal here due to school, college and travel restrictions. A lot of the boys’ cycle to the training ground, some from quite a distance away. The first of these late arrivals are able to join in and copy the others, which needs little explanation from me. But the later arrivals are different, especially as we switch activities. Thoughts of what we can do and what I’m capable of explaining, shift from one to the other in my mind. I decide upon a short fitness session, which is easy to demonstrate and easy for them to copy my actions. But after this will be the main part of the training.
I set the activity up whilst they drink water and practise shooting at goal from distance. Then I’m in the spotlight. I call for their attention and similarly to yesterday, some are extremely slow to respond. Again I question whether or not this is ignorance or my wrong choice of words, yet I know from the reactions of the others who have gathered round, that it is ignorance – something that they wouldn’t do if the male head coach was there.
Eventually the 17 players all look my way. It’s just me and them.
My experience from yesterday means that I really don’t want to be in this position. I truly want other coaches here to take the pressure off of me. But I need to ‘take my opportunity’; I need to swim or sink. My explanation of the task is met with a mixed level of understanding, so I do a mock up with some players. Still some of them are puzzled so I explain again. In truth, I feeling more confident now, due to a couple of the stronger players taking on board what I have said.
One group starts and quickly engages, so I turn my attention to the remaining players. Unfortunately, these were the ones who were at the back and they had clearly not been paying attention. Yet again this is something that doesn’t happen with the other coaches in quite the same way that it’s happening with me. But with determination and a deliberate attempt to demonstrate a clear understanding of what I want them to do, I explain and show the activity again. Admittedly through this process I make more than one apology for not speaking their language well enough, or understanding what they are saying to me, but hey – teenage boys have a language all of their own anyway!
Finally, the two groups are on task and I can relax further, walking between the groups to give reminders and some words of encouragement. Dare I say I’m beginning to enjoy this now? I am actually succeeding in training these boys entirely on my own (NB: It’s rare for any of the coaches to train the boys alone). I am not sinking!
The last part of the training means splitting the mixture of ages into 3 teams for small-sided games. This training session has a sting in its tail yet! My language weakness (and maybe authority) is about to be exposed again. The challenge in the midst of this is to stop the stronger characters from taking over and dominating unfairly, but I quickly make one of the older players who can speak English a captain, which helps me out.
Typically, at the end we all sit together for some reflection as well as sharing info for the forth-coming games, but today, as soon as I blow the whistle to end the last game, a number of them leave the pitch and have no intention of returning. For my part I have no intention of trying to call them back, instead I turn my attention to the ones who have grouped together. I admit to them that today was a big challenge due to what happened yesterday and I thank them for their patience with me. I deliberately keep this section short and soon everyone, including me, is free to head home.
As I swap my footwear from football boots to flip flops, I’m pleased that today, I took my opportunity; I didn’t sink.
For sure the boys need to learn to respect me more as a coach and not disregard me because I’m a female, but I too have learnt the need to be more authoritative with them, in a positive way.
It’s helped me to grow in confidence and I sincerely hope that if this situation ever arises again, we will all work more effectively together.
Author: Joanne Stuckey is a football coach from Luton, England who volunteers in Brazil. Joanne has been a blogger for the FCN since 2015 and continues to share her stories and thoughts on coaching as a woman, her thoughts on women’s sports and her journey in Brazil.