Here we are staring at the end of a semester that went by quickly. All of the fall sports are complete and we’ve settled into the winter sports rhythm.
For one coach this marked the end of a coaching career as Bill Elgersma announced his intention to retire from the day to day work on the soccer sidelines.
Here’s the retrospective look by an individual who has spent years pacing the sideline and working practices and tirelessly giving back to the athletes he has served.
You may be surprised at the level of devotion and dedication and thought that goes into coaching a team at this level.
I have lived my life in the world of words. I have always read, and teaching English has been my avocation as well as my vocation. Coaching has been dessert. But, in many ways, words have shaped me as a coach, and I live by an endless array of platitudes, colloquialisms, and principles. One that has been the impetus behind my coaching since I started with a U16 club in 1986 is my definition of success: Success is exceeding my own expectations. Nothing about that is brilliant, but I have lived most of my life by that principle. I don’t compete with others; I compete with me—and I don’t take failure from me well. I am the guy that buys a chainsaw that won’t run—just to see if I can fix it; a car with a blown engine–just to see if I can rebuild it, and soccer teams made up of a hodge-podge of players–just to see if we can…and that has been the most rewarding part.
For some time now, I have determined I need to stop coaching. I firmly believe that, at some point, a coach has a shelf life. Too often we hang on because of our ego, our addiction to the limelight, our need to be needed beyond who we are as people, our quest for records, awards, accolades…. Sometimes we stay too long. I didn’t want to be the singer on the stage who only then realizes he no longer has a voice. In my world, you always leave something better than it was, so now is the right time to go.
Looking at our season, 2 freshmen competed in all 19 games with both playing more than 1600 minutes, while a 3rd played in 16 games, and a 4th 11. In our final game, 5 freshmen were competing against the #14 team in the nation. That is unusual for a collegiate team and speaks to the quality of the athletes moving forward.
We enjoyed a seven game run in the middle of the season, which was both beneficial and detrimental. We lost our first three games—two I want back—and then made a mental shift leading to our streak. However, looking back at the season, we needed the last three teams on our schedule to be interspersed in the season rather than coming at the end. The streak was not nearly as important as playing competitors who force us to improve through higher level play, quicker touch, more speed, and better passes. Several times throughout the season, our opponents scored first—and early as well—and those are issues of youth, focus, and mental preparation. Certainly, we managed to come from behind to win many of those games, but we struggled to string together 90 minutes. In our playoff game, we knew what we needed to do, but only later in the first half—after we were down by 2—and into the second half did we execute the plan. Sure, we won the second half, but we came up short for the game, and experience says that is the process of growth and maturation. But it was still a good season and a delightful group to have the privilege of coaching. And now I am done.
What does a person say when reflecting back over 30+ years of coaching at rec, club, high school, college, and semi-pro levels? For many years, I have carried a quote that someone morphed from Shakespeare: “To thine own self be true. In the end we are our own best friend and our last greatest hope.” I have no interest in facades, and I believe in being honest with everyone, especially myself. At the end of the day, I better be able to look in the mirror and be okay with what I see. If not, I better figure out what I need to change for tomorrow. For me that is a moral imperative.
The first thing in my rearview mirror is I never intended to coach. Not really. The problem is my voice carries and I speak in imperatives. So, as a fan, I always cheered with authority and shared my perspective with officials in a manner that sounded like I knew more than I ever did. Add volume to that and maybe it equals a coach? I suppose I struggle with the connotations of being a coach: what culture in America has made coaches and coaching out to be. This is what I do, not who I am, and, if it is my identity, then who am I when my team has a losing season?
Regardless, long before I was prepared, I was a novice in the coaching world, failing miserably. Early on, I had read Baumarind’s parenting theory of demands and responsiveness and set out to be the authoritative coach—high demands/high responsiveness. I asked a great deal from my players and thought that by explaining and supporting them with analysis, I was helping them meet their potential. I failed to recognize that they had met their potential, and so another mantra came into play: you can’t build square walls with crooked studs. I owe those JV high school students an apology for taking something they loved and sucking the life out of it.
When I inherited the men’s program, I was told I had to talk to my players. As a writer, sometimes talking is difficult for me. One on one, no problem, but with a large group, I find myself speaking in superficialities. When something is really important or needs introspection, I prefer to write so I don’t know what I think until I see what I say showed up. However, over the years, I am not sure that many of my players read the emails composed at 3 am when I couldn’t sleep. At training the next day, one of the veterans would off-handedly ask, “how long did it take to write that email?” Several would have the blank look of “what email?” and I would know that, once again, I had lost most of the group. So much for talking. I have never done it well, but I have learned to communicate through humour in the moment.
Just about the same time I started coaching, I started teaching—and it wasn’t going well either. What kept me going was the discovery of a line that I infused into whatever I did and still own it today: when you lose the power to laugh, you lose the power to think straight. I learned how to laugh because you can laugh or you can cry, and anybody can cry. We still laugh, sometimes fall-down-on-the-ground laugh, sometimes tears laugh. No matter what happens, we had better see what is funny when it comes along, as long as it does not denigrate others. Life, people, and occurrences are hilarious, and I feel sorry for all who miss out on that. A long, long time ago—early 90s I think—the men’s side was playing at Concordia. We were brilliant and absolutely pounded them that day. We had 36 shots, probably 4-6 posts and crossbars. They had 1. We lost the game 1-0. At that time, the coach called the score into TV stations and I remember calling Channel 9 in Sioux City. I gave him the score and shot totals, and he said, “You’ve got to be kidding.” Nope, that is how it went—and I laughed.
Over the years, I have had serious players—really serious players. They see themselves as soccer players and the world revolves around that identity. I have learned that, while those players are great for carrying a team, if that is all they are, life can be difficult. Athletics is a mean, mean acquaintance. When everything is going well, the ball goes in the goal; we win every challenge, and the score has us on top when the game is over. But, a missed strike, a blown penalty kick resulting in a loss, or worst of all, an injury, either through contact or simply an accident, and psychologically, players can be done.
One of the hardest things is injuries. Any time college players say their sport is their life, I cringe. I have had too many with career-ending injuries over my tenure as a coach. No one recruits players to a team and tells them, “By the way, this thing you are doing to help pay your tuition? Well, it just might result in a surgery that has you rehabbing for a year,” or worse, with a concussion, “struggling with headaches and time-on-task for the rest of your life.” I am miserable and angry when these happen, regardless of whether self-inflicted or caused by an opponent. No one comes to college expecting to get hurt, and even though we dismiss these as realities, I have nothing. All I can do is say I’m sorry because I can’t separate the person from the athlete—while the players who are done have no idea who they are when they are no longer athletes.
Recently, I have taken to explaining soccer to my women’s side through this analogy: “Soccer is like a bad boyfriend. You put a great deal of time and energy into it, but you don’t get much back.” Looking at the analogy, I suppose it is not completely true, but the inference is there. I have always recruited athletes to Dordt, not me. And I have always called soccer “dessert.” It is a way to help pay tuition, and it allows players to eat “cheesy burritos” in season because they are going to burn the calories. But their role is to be a student athlete, emphasis on student. I have always expected (demands) that my players graduate in 4 years unless their program changes, and I have always made that possible by balancing soccer and their academics (responsiveness). That is and always has been my priority. If graduating takes longer, they haven’t kept their part of the deal. Looking back, very few dropped out or transferred unless we didn’t have their major program, but only one played pro—indoor. Some may have played semi-pro, but none has a career as an athlete while all have been productive in their worlds through their education, both in and out of the classroom, here at Dordt. Despite the many things that I would like a do-over on, I believe the delicate balance of academics and athletics is the one area where I have been consistent, but, I would argue, detrimental to our win/loss record. And, while God will not call me to account for my win/loss record, He will call me to account for each person I coached.
The greatest blessing in coaching is something that I am only now coming to appreciate, and that is the relationships. In the middle of the season, I am trying to figure out how to prepare my team for the next opponent. After the season I recruit players from all over North America, and in the summer I have to be watching those who are graduating 2 years from now. I never stop to enjoy the relationships until much later. Occasionally, I get an email from a former player who needs a reference and we talk a bit about the current team. On parents’ weekend this year, a former player from the 90s stopped to talk with me, and last weekend the father of a former player reached out to congratulate me on a great season. When these things occur, I realize how rich my life is. I have family all over North America because of coaching soccer here, and it isn’t just my players. The families are a part of the team in some odd capacity and sometimes even just Dordt association. Several years ago I was walking through Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam wearing a Dordt soccer shirt and someone stopped me to say his relative worked here. Last summer I was in Paris for World Cup with a Dordt shirt on and someone stopped me in the stands to tell me he had graduated from Calvin.
To be sure, I won’t miss being stressed at 4:30 am, sitting at my kitchen table and plan yet another training session on a 4×4 scrap of paper while doing a full analysis of our most current weaknesses. I won’t miss the heat and humidity of August when even the flies sweat and the tired, bitter November winds that leave us asking, “in what universe was this a good idea?” I won’t miss the bus rides where, at my age, I would be more comfortable in the cargo bay, but I will desperately miss my players and their families and, by connection, that broader community.
When next fall hits—it won’t arrive, it will hit—I don’t know how I will handle that. Being idle is never a good thing for me. In some ways I am like a boat adrift. For as long as I have been an educator, I have always held two full-time jobs, educator and coach. Now, I will simply teach, and the bond between teacher and student is not the same as the person coaching and the athletes. When people ask, I tell them I don’t know how it will go. I haven’t experienced many falls in the past 30 years away from a team.
Few can understand what the players in those jerseys with their character and personality mean to me and my family. Those memories have made me rich beyond measure and I have lived a life that few experience. These teams kept me young by allowing me into their world and giving me the latitude to learn how to coach while giving me a pass on my mistakes. I am the better person for having been a part of their world, if only for 2 hours on a daily basis for a few months of the year, and they have graciously permitted that.
The upside to retiring is my family have birthdays in soccer season so I have no excuse to miss those after 30 years of doing so. As well, I will have time with my wife—the shelter in this tornado. In the world of coaching, spouses—those who know us best—are the reason we can keep going while they sit quietly in the background. Without acknowledgement or accolade, they patch when we are broken, calm when we are stressed, and raise our children while we raise others’. None of this would have been possible without Jeanie’s assistance, enthusiasm, and support. They may have been my players but they were, as importantly, her kids, and her quiet voice of objective reasoning has pulled me from the ashes more times than I can count. God truly has blessed me with the richest of lives.