Soccer Girl, Interrupted” ― An Afterword by Roberta Lunardo

Please welcome author and journalist Roberta Lunardo today, with an afterword to her book on her daughter’s soccer journey.

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“Soccer Girl, Interrupted” ― An Afterword by Roberta Lunardo *

I hope I can find the words to express how proud I am of my daughter’s overcoming the toxic environment she had to face as a very young girl. Two years ago, when Melissa was only nine years old, she had to go through the events chronicled in “Soccer Girl, Interrupted” and her confidence was shattered. After a long process of identifying the problem―bullying, soccer mom from hell, unprofessional coach, favoritism, and politics in the U.S. soccer club mentality―we removed her from that situation, regrouped, and got ready for her journey of recovery.

Today, as I sit here writing these lines, I can honestly say that those events have made her stronger. It still took some time for her to start to believe in herself again―it’s a never-ending process―and once in a while, she’ll make comments about the adults who have let her down. 

You only stop to think about the effects of emotional abuse when it comes to the surface and your daughter says something like, “Could you change that workout alarm on your phone? That’s what my old coach used during drills, and I don’t want to think about him.” That one comment told me that it still hurt to remember what she went through but, nevertheless, she was now able to voice her feelings and look back at it with a little bit of detachment.

We are glad she didn’t decide to quit soccer altogether after her experience, especially because she has extremely talented friends, both boys and girls, who have given up club soccer after the unpleasant experiences they have gone through themselves. Instead, Melissa focused on clinics while making the transition to a new club, worked hard, and found her place on a new team―this time with a coach who is not only a teacher but had been a professional soccer player himself and has a strong background coaching high school soccer. 

Above all, her new coach had the sensitivity to shift from a long career coaching teenage boys, to take over two all-girls teams for the first time (one with 10-year-olds and another with 12-year-olds) and make it a goal to develop individual players for the good of the collective in the long term. After all, as Mia Wenjen and Alison Foley tell us in “How to Coach Girls,” coaching isn’t a one-size-fits-all deal, and it takes a different approach when building the confidence of young female athletes.

Melissa has also been displaying her love for soccer in other ways: watching matches on TV, going to indoor soccer games to support a local professional team, and acting as Assistant Coach to Daddy as part of her own brother’s recreational soccer experience. The expression on her face when she is helping the little ones―ages six and seven, who inevitably look up to her―could only be described as joyfully proud.

Recently, her latest accomplishment in recovering from emotional trauma was her decision to go back to recreational indoor soccer, on top of her already busy soccer schedule. Watching her brother’s team play reminded her of how she started out playing indoor at age seven. She remembered how fun it was and asked us to sign her up for the upcoming season.

Today, she’s been acting as a team leader in the 10-12 age group indoor, considering her experience in competitive club soccer and assistant coaching. She helps organize the team from inside the field, reminds her players of positioning, encourages them to work hard while leading by example, and selfless passes to give others a chance to score, even if that means missing a scoring opportunity herself. Celebrating her teammate’s first goal ever in a game was just as meaningful to her (or even more) as celebrating a goal of her own.

And, since it’s a coed indoor soccer experience, she has gone back to being the battling beast we all knew from before she had adults tearing her down at her old club. When playing against boys, it seems that she believes in herself even more, because she knows that she can keep up with the most skilled and toughest players, because she is just as skilled and tough herself, and she is not “just a girl.” 

Averaging a couple of goals a game, sometimes from foul kicks placed with strength and precision on the upper corners of the goal, she’s been playing her heart out as she hears opposing coaches yelling at their players, “Take her out! Block her! Don’t let her beat you to the ball!” 

That kind of recognition and the encouragement she gets from parents from opposing teams after a match is all she needs right now to remember that she is allowed to keep going and follow her dreams. When parents come to congratulate me and my husband, saying that our daughter is a very good player, we simply smile and thank them for their compliments. However, deep down, what we tell ourselves is, We already knew she was a good player, but now we know she is safe and knows her own value.

Roberta Lunardo is a journalist born in South America who has been living in the United States since the early 2000s. She is the author of “Soccer Girl, Interrupted,” which chronicles her then 9-year-old daughter’s struggles in a toxic club soccer environment.

Social Awareness and Giving Back to Community

Social Awareness and Giving Back to Community

My girls’ club soccer team did an annual soccer charity event where the entire club played soccer for twenty-four hours straight. Each age level was assigned a two-hour block of time where they scrimmaged against the boys’ teams with music pumping in the background. The coaches would jump in and play too, which made it especially fun. Each player raised $400 towards soccer scholarships and Special Olympics. It was a nice way for the kids to channel their love of soccer towards a social cause, and it also gave them a chance to interact with other teams that they usually didn’t ever see on the soccer field.

Social Awareness and Giving Back to Community

Social Awareness and Giving Back to Community

We already have the organization, in the form of our team, to help others.

We have the opportunity as coaches to educate outside the game. For example, we can encourage our players to give back outside the sport. If we do a community service project, our team might have the chance to learn that there are kids in Kenya who play barefoot because they don’t own soccer cleats or that they don’t have running water. It also is a way to improve team chemistry.

Community service also serves to decrease bullying because it teaches kids to be empathetic. Sometimes kids are so busy that if we don’t offer this opportunity, it’s hard for them to do it. Then we can get into this pattern of focusing on player improvement, and that sends a certain message to the team. Continue reading “Social Awareness and Giving Back to Community”

Player Code of Conduct

Player Code of Conduct

My daughters rarely received a formal Player Code of Conduct that they had to read over and sign for the sports teams that they played on. I like a formal players’ contract to put everyone on the same page at the start of a new season. Without a formal list of rules, the players have to figure out by what the coach’s rules of conduct are, and the unspoken rules of behavior can take longer to figure out (e.g. are we here to win or have fun?).

Player Code of Conduct

 Player Code of Conduct

Champions make those around them better.

At the start of the season, go over the player code of conduct and then have each player sign that they understand and commit to this. This is a great opportunity to set the tone of the team: teamwork, having fun, mutual respect.

  • Have fun!
  • Show courtesy and respect to all coaches, players, opponents, officials, parents, and fans.
  • Attend every practice and game that you can, and notify the coach if you can’t make it.
  • Be supportive of teammates.

Continue reading “Player Code of Conduct”

Player Feedback and Evaluations

Not all coaches give player evaluations I’ve noticed. My middle daughter received formal player evaluations when she played soccer, starting when she was in middle school. Both her town team coach and her club team coach gave written reviews, but with different frequencies. Her town team coach gave weekly performance evaluations after every game. Not her teammates liked getting graded weekly, but I thought it was great. Her club team coach gave written evaluations twice a year at the end of each season, but also did a face-to-face meeting to go over the form. I’ve saved all these forms and it’s fun to look back on them to see what she was working on, and her progress that year. In any format (written or verbal), feedback is helpful for player development. The delivery of the feedback is critical though. Even though my daughter got mostly positive feedback, she worried about her face-to-face assessment. After each evaluation meeting though, she would have a giant smile on her face!

 Player Feedback and Evaluations Player Feedback and Evaluations

For volunteer parent coaches, the first thing to consider when thinking about individual player goals and evaluations is how much time you have to spend on it, and therefore the frequency that you can realistically commit to. It’s not necessary as a parent volunteer coach to do formal written evaluations. The important thing is to have players feel good about themselves.

Positive Verbal Feedback versus Written Evaluation

It’s time consuming, but girls need feedback. Constant positive verbal feedback during practices is sufficient for girls younger than middle school, but if you have the time, a face-to-face evaluation at the end of each season can be a powerful way to let each player know how much you appreciate their efforts. You can also use this time to help them set development goals for next season.

It’s not necessary as a parent volunteer coach to do formal written evaluations. The important thing is to have players feel good about themselves.

Age Appropriateness of Player Evaluations

There’s a few factors to consider when deciding if you want to do written player evaluations:

  • Age of player
  • Your time availability
  • Level of commitment for improving

Continue reading “Player Feedback and Evaluations”

Body Image, Puberty and Sports

Body Image Puberty and Sports

Navigating body image as girls go through puberty is challenging. Add in sports and there is an added level of complexity. On the one hand, sports teach girls that their bodies are to be celebrated for what it can do; being strong and capable. On the other hand, media informs girls that they are being evaluated solely on their appearance. As a parent, this drama plays out in small ways – is there an after-game team snack and does it have to be “healthy?” Are matchups with size differences – “that team is so huge” — seen as intimidating or “unfair?”

I was that mom. My middle daughter who played a lot of soccer was usually the smallest kid on the field. A matchup with a girl much taller seemed like a doomed proposition. Team snacks were also a minefield had to be carefully considered for parental approval, and I usually provided multiple options just to be safe. But this was the tip of the iceberg.

My oldest daughter played town soccer for a volunteer dad coach who also happened to teach at one of our local middle schools. My daughter was an awkward phase of puberty – she would gain weight first and stay the same height for a long time, before shooting up. She also had knee problems from tight hamstrings and puberty and often couldn’t participate from being in pain. Her coach was not sympathetic, and called her out in front of her teammates for being lazy and unfit. This ended up being the last year she played soccer.

Body Image Puberty and Sports

Body Image, Puberty and Sports

Even a decade ago, I noticed that young girls in the age range of eleven and twelve, weren’t thinking about their bodies. But now puberty is happening at a younger age. There’s also a trend in more form fitting soccer uniforms. Even for youth players like U12 girls, the kits are more narrow and it makes girls more conscious of body image. One consequence of these trends is that some young girls will restrict their eating, and that’s where the coach can come in and be a positive influence.

We, as coaches, have to be careful how we describe girls’ bodies. “Girls in the back are HUGE.” Nobody wants to be that huge girl. Continue reading “Body Image, Puberty and Sports”

Developing Good People Not Just Good Players

Developing Good People Not Just Good Players

My kids probably respected and sometimes even feared their coach more than any other authority figure in their lives. That’s the person they worried the most about. Does my coach like me? Am I going to start? I noticed that my middle daughter’s town coach would work with her team on kindness and appreciating every member of the team through “pump up” letters before games. In small ways and big ways, coaches have enormous influence that can be tapped and used to encourage athletes to develop not just as good players, but good people.

Developing Good People Not Just Good Players

Developing Good People Not Just Good Players

The role of the coach can influence far beyond the field. It’s really important to recognize non-soccer things to help develop players into good people. For example, I coach U14 girls on a club team and I might recognize the player for being courteous because they let someone cut them in line. Somebody didn’t have a change to go so you recognize that and you let them go ahead of you. As opposed to I am going to be the first one in front the college coach who’s recruiting here today.

“Round of applause for Miriam for being courteous. She let Jocelyn go ahead of her.” Continue reading “Developing Good People Not Just Good Players”