This piece is about empathy, forgiveness, and understanding humans make mistakes. Make sure to treat your players like humans.
Think back to February 2020. The before times. Covid was just a silly meme. Very few knew what was about to happen. For me, it's very likely I had it during my final days in St. Louis, Missouri. Having spent time with my roommate's best friend and wife, conversing over dinner about their recent trip to Shanghai, upon which they returned with covid, it would appear, in hindsight I probably had it. I spent my final few days there coughing and spluttering, bed ridden, full aching body, exceedingly hot, feeling as if it were the worst flu ever times ten.
Some people at the time suggested "Hey, it might be that new virus from China, hehehehe" but it was never a serious suggestion, nor was it ever a serious consideration. It was after the fact, in March, that I learned of the acquaintance couple having covid. To exacerbate that, a dad who I spent much time with in my final days was rushed to hospital a week or so after I left, where they had to pump fluid from his lungs. At the time, it did not occur to any of us that this could have been covid. Surely mine was just regular flu, right? But I'd already had flu just a month earlier.
The symptoms followed me for a couple months after. I finished my time in Missouri, just as an infamous visa scandal was being blown wide open, and returned to Mexico. The company I had worked for would cease to exist just a few short months later, and several people would become the subject of FBI investigations. For the first week or two, my continuing symptoms were attributed to the readjustment to Mexico City. You don't notice the altitude until you try and run, at which point the recovery from a short sprint hits you like a ton of bricks. For the first few days in Mexico City, you'll sleep ten hours or more per day. Two months later and I was still sleeping for ten hours. Your resting heart rate increases due to the altitude, but within a week, you start to adjust. Mine was up by between 6-10bpm. I'd have random bursts of shortness of breath. They said perhaps it was anxiety or stress? Hardly. I'd just quit my job, and was finally living in the same country with my wife after three years long distance. I'm a very calm, laid back person. That wasn't it. I eventually went to the doctor, who heard a heart palpitation.
Meanwhile, the world is going into lockdown. Little did we know what was about to come. My wife and I were supposed to be moving back to England in May. I wouldn't return until August, and she eventually joined me on December 31st. Just in time for fireworks and fish and chips. During those lockdowns, we all went Zoom crazy. We all hosted and viewed several webinars per day. Within weeks, it appeared all of Coach Twitter gained Zoom fatigue. Too much learning in too short a space of time, with no outlet to actually put any of those ideas into practice. Excellent resources, talks, presentations, podcasts, interviews from the likes of Michael Beale, Stevie Grieve, Mark O'Sullivan, and many fantastic others, just turning our brains into mush as this sense of impending doom began to numb our sensibilities.
In my final days before all this, when I was delirious with fever, but still showing up to coach because these were my last sessions ever with these kids, and I wouldn't get a second chance to say goodbye, I experienced a situation I'm sure countless other coaches have. And I believe I'm in the minority of how I handled it. It sticks in the memory, and I'm sure I told it several times during those first Zoom webinars. This is where I get to the boy who forgot his shoes.
It's Saturday the 8th of February 2020. I fly on Monday the 10th. I was about to coach my U16 boys in a futsal game. I loved working with this team. They were great lads. I had them for my entire time in Missouri, and they were special. Some of them would have been in the top three players in the state in their position. Due to a league placement error, we spent much of my time there in divisions lower than we should have been, and as a result, would regularly spank opponents by lots of goals. Along the way, we witnessed some of the worst that American coaching had to offer. Swearing, fighting, insults, dinosaur tactics and coaching methods, and one coach who entered the field of play to grab a player by the throat and drag him off for underperforming, during live play. Obviously, if you're going to assault a kid, you wait until there's a break in play.
Mu U16s boys clearly appreciated my more laid back approach. The coaching was good and it was serious, yet we'd have a laugh and a joke. Smiling was permitted. The boys didn't have to refer to me as coach. After a while, they started to make jokes at my expense. It started to feel more English, as the boys realised it was okay to be sarcastic and silly, rather than the militaristic robots American coaches crave. I treated them like humans. I treated them with respect, with care, and with love. One of my favourite experiences in Missouri is when my kids had been taught so well, they openly mocked abusive and terrible coaches to their face. When an opposing coach would lose the plot and start screaming and abusing their players, my players would audibly perform impressions, even during the game. These types of coaches thrived on fear. I had helped them develop the tools to cut through that fear, thus rendering these coaches ineffective and powerless. There is a problem in the USA, and much of the world, where abusive behaviours have been conflated with "tough love" coaching.
As the nine boys for that futsal match began arriving, we'd laugh and converse. They'd tell me things like how I was an awful coach and they wouldn't miss me, before making sure they had my social media so they could stay in contact. They'd reminisce over the past few years, and perform several more impressions. One of the last boys to arrive began to prepare for the match. At which point, he realised he had forgotten his futsal shoes and his socks.. Okay. Don't panic. Let's analyse the situation.
How long until kick off? Twenty minutes. How long to go back home to retrieve them? Thirty minutes. That rules that out. Do any of our team have spare shoes? No, none of them. Spare socks? Yes. So we'd got him socks, but no shoes. How about trainers? He wasn't wearing trainers, and none of the team had any in his size.
Okay. So now we're in a pickle. Got the socks, but no shoes. No spare shoes, no trainers in the right size.
Hmmmm... "What size are you?" I ask. If memory serves, he said he was a nine. I looked down at the futsal shoes I was wearing. Typically, I would wear trainers to the court, and put my futsal shoes on when I had arrived. On this occasion, I had strangely worn futsal shoes from home. Dangerous, as the ground was covered in snow and ice. So if I gave him my futsal shoes. He wore the borrowed football socks over his own socks to try and fill out the shoes a little bit. He wasn't completely like a clown, but there was a little space in there. I coached the game in my socks. I looked like a twat. But then I suppose the opposition coach looked like a bigger twat because he lost the game to a coach in his socks.
I've had several coaches remark to me, at the time, and since recalling the story, that they would not have done what I did. The boy needs to suffer the consequence of his actions. How will he learn if he is bailed out? You can imagine the usual complaints. Many coaches would have looked at it as an opportunity to teach about discipline. I looked it as an opportunity to teach empathy.
Let's take a step back and look at it from a wider perspective. Have you ever made a mistake? Of course you have. Have you ever made a mistake on purpose? Of course not, as a deliberate mistake is an oxymoron. This boy was not one who regularly made mistakes. We've all forgotten things. It happens. It's part of life. It's part of being human. Should we punish people for being human? I believe if you have the power to help, you help.
But did I miss an opportunity to teach him about responsibility if I bailed him out? No. The boy felt terrible. He'd already suffered the consequences. What he then saw next was a group of people, and his leader, coming together to help a teammate in need, via the search for shoes and socks. We had the power to help, so we chose to help. To do otherwise could be categorised as spite.
As a coach, you have to assume positive intent. Nobody does bad things on purpose, like miss an open goal, give the ball away, fail to make a tackle. They tried to do the right thing, but they got it wrong. It happens. It happens to all of us. Have you ever forgot your keys? Forgot to prepare your lunch? Missed a deadline? Forgot an important date? It happens. And it doesn't make you a bad person. It makes you a person.
Many coaches would have looked at it as an opportunity to teach the boy a lesson, and would have prevented him from playing that game. Who are you to prevent a kid playing football with his mates? Get over yourself. He learned his lesson immediately, as he experienced that feeling of his guts dropping when he realised he'd forgot his shoes and socks. That was enough of a lesson. He won't do it again. That was easy to tell from how upset he was. And then, his team, his tribe, his family, banded together to help a brother. Considering he's now in the Marines, I think he knows a thing or two about responsibility and organisation. I chose "no man gets left behind" when some would have chosen "every man for himself."
You see, the wonderful thing about sport is that it is not real life. It's all make believe. It has no inherent importance or value, only that which we place upon it. We get to experience situations that mimic real life, with no severe or fatal consequences. It's an excellent opportunity for us to learn and share experiences in a safe, trusting, loving environment.
Remember that our job as coaches is to teach, facilitate, and prepare. I had two different options to teach; a) empathy, b) responsibility. If I choose to teach responsibility by not bailing him out and benching him, then I fail to facilitate the playing of football, and I fail to prepare him as a footballer by denying him the lessons that would have been learned from participating in that match. By choosing to teach empathy, I've taught him about coming together in a crisis, facilitated him playing, and prepared him for the game of the future.
At this point some people like to say things like "What would Pep Guardiola do if his star player forgot his boots?" I think rather obtusely neglecting how pampered Premier League players are. They have an entire team of staff dedicated to preparing boots and kit for the players. The players walk into the changing rooms with two or three pairs of boots ready, and a couple pairs of fresh, folded underpants. Not only is it a terrible example, but it's also dangerous to be comparing youth football to the Premier League.
And anyway, if Pep's star player forgot his boots for a key game, you can guarantee one of the staff would be hurtling down to the nearest Sports Direct at 100mph. Which is where you have to ask yourself, how would you react if your worst player forgot their boots, compared to how you'd react if your best player forgot their boots. Easy, right? If your worst player forgets their boots, you punish them, keep them on the bench, and repress a smile caused by not having to field a liability. If your best player forgets their boots, you'd move heaven and earth to get boots. Some coaches would even commandeer boots from one of the weaker players. Don't pretend this hasn't happened on the Sunday morning grassroots pitches up and down the country. In these situations, treat all your players like your best player.
So coaches, have a spare pair of shinpads and goalie gloves in the boot of the car. Keep a pump in your bag in case someone's little brother or sister wants to play with their ball but it's flat. Purchase a couple extra items of kit to have around as spare, for when others forget theirs. We are leaders and we are role models. Good role models help those in need and put others first. Good leaders know their subordinates will make mistakes, and will forgive them anyway.
Could you imagine, before everything went wrong in the world, that the last time this boy saw me, I prevented him from playing football with his mates simply because of something trivial that we've all done like forgetting shoes? I would not want that to be their lasting memory of me. This coming season, your players will make lots of mistakes. Make sure they know you have forgiven them in advance. Because they're only human. Just like you.