• Coach Sonja

Worthy Opponent


No, no, no. Not that!


I was 9 years old and my twin sister and father made an executive decision that we were going to sign up for AYSO soccer. My father, Papa, had been a single parent for two years, and being an immigrant from Germany, I think this decision was based on the only thing he knew that was closest to raising children. Raise a team, raise twin daughters. The same.


My twin sister was a typical tomboy, and I, the cheerleader-type. When heading off to school each day, Sister would throw on the same sweatpants and hooded sweatshirt she wore the day before with her most precious item under her arm. She held that football like a baby.


I, on the other hand, would review my color-coordinated flower printed pants with my buttoned blouse. I made sure both socks and hair bow were matching the color scheme of the outfit. Details were important. I was Sister’s greatest fan, watching her rumble with the boys as she played this rough sport. I screamed, “Go Sister!” I loved cheering for her while sitting properly on the sidelines where I belonged. I was very comfortable there.


We were close. Papa did raise a team and it was us. I was loyal to them like no other, which made it difficult to face the blow of the executive decision.


“Girls?”


“Yes, Papa?”


“We are joining a soccer team!”


Sister gleamed with so much joy. My face fell flat. I haven’t played soccer before, but I know it had all the ingredients I did not enjoy - running, kicking, running, trapping, running. Yet, I felt pressure. Both looked at me in celebration and I couldn’t be left out. Suck it up.


My first day on the soccer field. Ugh. The ugliest sense of coordination anyone could imagine.


I ran away from conflict, which included the ball coming my way.

I ducked to the floor, hugging my knees, when balls came at all angles and heights.

I was afraid. I had never pushed my body, mind, and heart before to feel every sense of me.


And my coach, Papa, never criticized nor overly celebrated. He was patient, technical with feedback and waited for me to learn about what my body, mind, and heart could do when they synced up. He was my companion of development, but he knew I was ultimately the boss of me.


At our very first game, Papa showed up in a three-piece suit. The cap, blazer, slacks and vest were dark grey. His black loafer shoes were gleaming. He must have shined them in the morning. At first, I didn’t notice, and neither did he, how out of place he was compared to the other volunteer-parent coaches who wore their shorts and T-shirt. All I noticed was Papa honoring our team, honoring the game. I am sure he thought the United States was absurd for such casual wear on game days.


I will forever remember his stride as he walked across the AYSO field - with grace, a sturdy posture, chin up, a smirk to reveal his excitement, but always quiet, assertive, and calm. Underneath one arm is the hand-crafted soccer board made of plywood. His profession as a mechanic inspired him to build that rendition of a soccer field; it folds in half. He carefully glued green felt and hand painted the lines in white. He used old checkers to represent players, each player’s name handwritten on a tiny white paper that was glued to the top. He knew the game well during his international soccer days. He also knew that 9-year-old girls needed something to see and move when it came to understanding his vision.


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Nine years later as a senior in high school, I received the All-Female CIF recognition which added to the numerous CIF awards from previous seasons. I played for the varsity high school team and a club team all four years of high school. My reputation within the CIF league was anchored to my ability to defend with clean-sweeping slide tackles and jumping headers. Not bad for the girl who was afraid of the ball, of soccer, of anything that was considered rough. I became confident and understood the superpowers of my body, mind, and heart, uniquely coordinated as one.


I can’t remember all the wins and losses in my soccer career because that wasn’t what I learned about the sport. I do remember two games as a child. One was my first season. The same season where Papa showed up in a three-piece suit to our first game. We were undefeated, and I was convinced to stay with this sport a little longer. I had a hunch that soccer was going to teach me something beyond the game itself.


The second game was when my team lost 15-0 (yes you read that right) playing our first club game. I was twelve. We wore wool jerseys (because they were on sale) in 100-degree heat. At halftime, the score was 12-0. Papa kneeled down and leaned in towards his tired players. He was proud that we were showing up to this game. He saw fight within us, but he also saw fatigue and pain, and he saw right. He gave us an out. “You can walk away from the game feeling proud that you arrive here with courage. You do not need to beat yourselves up. This is up to you.”


Quiet, humbled, and authentic, he was asking us to decide to forfeit. Each one of us looked at him. It was almost instant. No way. We were finishing the game.


Papa was the best coach anyone could ever ask for. To this day, I’m 45 now, he remains the most influential soccer coach in my life. As a parent and coach, he carries a mindset that is calm, forgiving, accurate, and trustworthy. When it was my turn to volunteer for AYSO 13 years ago as coach, Papa’s lessons became mine. When I ask parents to embrace the six AYSO philosophies, it’s not for them to remember, but instead to understand. Like me, most athletes are not born. It takes patience, love, and time for a young person to understand, then align, her body, mind, and heart. The athlete decides how and when to align these superpowers. No adult can act on the athlete’s behalf.




My teammates and a great coach revealed my character, trust, grit, and resilience that would be a part of me for a lifetime. Honor every part of me, honor the game, honor my teammates and leave the field a worthy opponent. And I have been a worthy opponent ever since.




 

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