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Saturday, November 21, 2009

FACING GIANTS (by Blaine Vanderschuit)

Last year’s soccer season was truly memorable through and through, mostly for its “Facing the Giants” feeling, but also for its symbolic significance to me and my dad before he passed away. (I’m finally getting around to writing this almost seven months later—but I date my posts by when they happened in my life to keep things chronological). I hope you have come to see that when I write about something at length, it’s because I think there is something worthwhile in it worth the time to read.

At the beginning of the season, I could see I had my work cut out for me. Almost all unskilled players, lack of focus, timidity, the whole gamut. Yes, I knew they were only 6-8 year olds, but after three years of coaching the 4-5 year olds, I was ready for the players at least to be able to focus beyond chasing their shadows or picking daisies and such (cute, but it gets old fast…okay, so I’m a competitive control freak, let’s get that out of the way!).

Our first game was against “The Ninjas,” who totally demoralized my team “The Tsunamis”, something like 8-2. After the game and through the next practice, the boys held the Ninjas in near awe, even to the point of hypothesizing that they accidentally played a team from the 8-10 year olds! “I hope we NEVER have to play the Ninjas again!” became practically a mantra. I, of course, had the season schedule, but I didn’t want to reveal who our last game would be against. Not yet anyway.

Two more demoralizing games came and went, and we seemed to regress in skill, with zero goals and fewer shots each game. I realized I was going to have to take drastic action. We changed up our defensive strategy and worked more on putting kids where their natural skill sets best suited them without pigeon-holing them too much in their formative years. But we still had a LONG way to go. The next few games it would be crucial that I could at least find bits of “moral victory.” With the kids morale so low, they were showing signs of giving up already.

It was hard to blame them. Honestly, some of the other teams seemed to consist entirely of future all-stars (including a mutant blond-haired defensive giant whom my wife and I nicknamed “Olaf”). With two more harsh losses in games four and five, I was hard pressed to keep their spirits up, but at least we were doing some things right, and that against teams that honestly put the Ninjas to shame——but the kids wouldn’t believe me and still spoke of the Ninjas as the absolute best-of-the-best. Despite some progress, they were still tending toward a defeatist attitude.

We got a break when the assistant coach’s schedule opened up for us to have two practices a week, which immediately upped our progress a bit. I also raised the intensity of my Friday practice. Honestly, I had to abandon the easy-going AYSO practice philosophy I learned in coaches training. Having things seem too lighthearted and “fun” seemed to actually be working against this team and was leading to more game-day demoralization of the kids—two of whom were my own children.

I thought of my dad and how he had instilled a kind of manly determination in me growing up and also in my fellow teammates when he helped coach my high school football team. I even talked to him about it, although he was never the biggest soccer fan, but he was always proud of me and the boys. And even though he couldn’t speak when he was hospitalized, I could see it in his eyes.

I was determined to make men of these 6-8 year olds (I hope that doesn’t sound too overboard, moms!). I started using more military metaphors, encouraging kids who were barely injured to keep playing as “wounded heroes” and such. Still it was like pulling teeth to get the team working on more than a few cylinders at a time. The practices became more and more militaristic, as that seemed to be improving things bit by bit.

I was barely making it back to each Friday practice and Saturday game from visiting my dad in the hospital, but it all began to pay off. We began scoring goals——and stopping some of theirs——even came close to tying some games. Just the kind of moral victories I was looking for to get the kids jump-started. They were starting to see the ball was literally in their court (okay, at their feet, I guess). Their attitude, focus, and determination were the only things holding them back.

Then came the last practice, the day before our final game. I told my dad all about it before I drove home, how the boys were going to have to face their giants—the Ninjas—in the last game. He had really been enjoying the overall story through the season, and it was not lost on him how this finale had all the makings of a good script. He gave me a deep look that displayed more than words could ever say. I will never forget it. I told him we were dedicating the last game to him....

I still didn’t tell the boys what team they were playing. I wasn’t going to let them psych themselves out before the practice. I think I made the right choice. Practice pace was non-stop, and the boys were really clicking. I honestly only remember giving them one short water break! Just an outstanding practice. The assistant coach and I laughed privately at how frenzied it was before I sat the boys down.

“Guess who we’re playing tomorrow?” I asked. I think the boys were too tired to even think. “The Ninjas.” They looked a bit worried, but I could see a bit of determination and can-do attitude had begun to spark in them. A few more manly motivational mantras and we parted with as much determination as their little hearts could muster, but I could see the doubt in their faces.

I prayed that night and the next morning that we’d do our best, and that the kids would see what hard work and determination can bring. Honestly, I don’t think I had that much faith because all I really hoped for was another moral victory. Fortunately, my faith isn't in myself but in the "God of the impossible."

We awoke to game day. I told the boys how they were going to have to shut out the Ninja’s best player if they were to have a chance (this kid was good, but a little scouting had suggested that his teammates had grown lazy letting him do all the work). I told them how my dad was rooting for them in the hospital, and how this game was dedicated to him. I also told them how I prayed for them. This last thing felt a bit risky because I wasn’t sure how they and their parents might receive that.

Honestly, I think that got the power of God into them something fierce! Elisa told me that when I walked away to gather up the balls, one of the senior players jumped into a leadership role and said, “Did you hear that, you guys? He prayed for us! We gotta do this! And for his dad! C’mon!” and the other boys joined in...including my dad’s grandsons, of course.

The offensive machine kicked in early and we got a couple of goals right up front. The Tsunamis were on fire (if that’s not a mixed metaphor, I dunno!). And the defensive machine—actually mostly on the offensive end—consistently neutralized the Ninja’s star player. Before the other Ninjas could figure out they needed to step up their game, we were already up 5-0. Half time came, and at last my team finally was able to fully enjoy it! The second half I was able to let the kids be freer in their positions, and even though the Ninjas did score a goal, we still shut out their star player. Final score 9-1...a complete reversal of the first game. Made all the frustration of the rest of the season worthwhile. I had previously begun to expect that God had given me these kids to develop some character in them, but I had no idea it would end that great. Character was being built in more than just them…

When I returned to the hospital that afternoon, my dad had taken a turn for the worse, and my enthusiasm about the game was interrupted. He was barely responding, and I would be faced with an even greater moment of character building. I could only hang on to hope beyond hope, trusting the goodness of God and that nothing is impossible for Him. It wasn’t easy for me, but God came through, and the next day I knew my dad had received salvation (see The Passing of My Father in the next post). In retrospect, two of the greatest days of my life.

As you can see, this is an important addition to the whole chronicle of the events surrounding the passing of my father (which was only six days later), and I’m glad to finally share it. It is, after all, another part of his legacy, because I couldn’t have done it without his inspiration. I told him several times about the outcome of the game, but I couldn’t quite tell if he ever fully heard me (I’m sure God has got him up to speed on that by now!).

Keep the faith, and check back later for some footage of the Tsunamis vs. Ninjas game, which I hope to post here as soon as I can get my camcorder working with my new computer...

1 comment:

BarbRey said...

Blaine this piece is absolutely soul satisfying - I will read it again and again, I know I will as I read the "homage" piece to your dear father, Warren. You are a brilliant writer. This could be and should be published.