Great Britain

‘I hope you know this was never about football’: coaching my daughter’s team

One day you’ll understand that this was never about football. It could have been anything. I just wanted to be where you were, as much as possible, for as long as you let me.

When you were five we had an argument in the car on the way to a training session. I don’t know exactly what it was about. As I mentioned, you were five, so it could have been anything: how I’d packed the wrong sort of corn crackers, or how after you’d bitten into one of them it had corners on it and you hated corners, or how I didn’t understand how much you hated corners because I obviously never cared about your feelings because I probably wouldn’t even care if you like died! If I really loved you, I would have bought the right corn crackers, the corner-less kind. It was one of those arguments. It ended as we stopped at a red light and you said something and I said something back, and you said something kind of mean and I lost my temper and said: “If you’re going to fight this much with me every time we go to train, I really don’t have to put this much time into being the coach!”

There was silence. Your eyes met mine in the rear-view mirror. Cold as ice. Then you said: “You’re really not the coach. You just inflate the footballs.”

That hurt me more than I was prepared for, it really did. I kept silent the rest of the way; you did, too. We joke about it now but right then and there we probably both noticed that, well, we crossed a line here. You had to walk more carefully around my self-esteem after that. When we got back home that evening you mumbled: “You also put on the plasters when someone gets hurt.” That was like a piece of gaffer tape around my chest, that mumble. It kept me in one piece for the whole next day.

Was I a bit easily offended there, in the car? Sure. But in my own defence, I had spent a fair amount of my spare time over the past several months being a coach. Or maybe not a coach, by definition, but at least the assistant coach. Or at least an assisting assistant coach. Or, at the very least, I was the guy who at long last raised his hand during that first parents’ meeting when they said they had a couple of experienced coaches confirmed, but an extra adult would be useful. So I’m an extra adult. Sure, if we’re going to be totally honest, one of the coaches and I walked across the parking area after the parents’ meeting and he asked, “Is that your estate?” and I said, “Mmm” and he said, “Perfect!” and so most of all I’m just the guy who’s kept all the team’s equipment in the back of my car for the past two years. But the rain comes down just as hard on the head coach on a nasty October day as it does on the guy who doesn’t know what he’s doing, let me tell you.

Because unfortunately that’s what I found out at football training with you: I know very little about football. I’ve been obsessed with the game my whole life and spent a good part of it yelling at strangers on television about what they ought to have done rather than what the hell they just tried to do. But, as it turned out, I know practically nothing. It was a fairly brutal awakening for me because it was a reasonably substantial part of my identity, up until that point, that I was the sort of person who “got” football. But then I met your coaches, and it was like that old joke about boxing: “I used to want to be a boxer until I met a guy who really wanted to be a boxer.” When I watch a match, I watch the football, but your coaches watch everything. After one of your first training sessions, one of them explained how Jürgen Klopp organised counter-pressing football, and for the first time in my life I understood that I really didn’t understand what counter-pressing was. The other coach looked at you and the other five-year-olds and teased, “All of you understood all that immediately, didn’t you?” None of the other girls answered, but you looked up, stared him straight in the eyes and said: “Hey, I’m only here because my dad promised me burgers afterwards!”

I respected your honesty. And honestly? The only thing I remember about counter-pressing now is how your coach said: “It’s not about what you do when you’re in control but what you do as soon as you’ve lost it.” I thought to myself, that’s just what it’s like trying to be a human being on a normal Wednesday. It was about that time that I realised football with you wouldn’t be all that much about football for me.

And then we went for burgers.

Sometimes I’ve worried that you started playing football only for my sake. Then I remind myself that it was probably the other way around. I played for too many years myself; I knew too much about gravel pitches in November in icy winds and sideways rain to encourage this. I took great care to inform you of many pleasant activities that take place at room temperature. Come to think of it, I talked so little about football with you that maybe you actually chose it to annoy me? One can never know for sure, as a parent. We always convince ourselves that all your best and worst decisions have something to do with us.

But you’re seven now, and deep down I know I have less and less of an effect on you. This is the age when the waves break: we struggle to get across them towards deeper water; I can probably still see the shore but I can feel the currents pulling. Soon you’ll let go of me and head out. I volunteered at that parents’ meeting only because I wanted to be allowed to stay around for a little longer. I raised my hand like a drowning man.

You probably know that. All the activities we go to, everything that’s ours, will evolve for us just as for all other children and parents: in the beginning we do all this for you, in the end you do it for us.

That’s why I grip your hand more and more firmly as we walk the last distance to the training ground now, because you won’t tell me when it’s the last time.

José Mourinho said, “Football is about winning,” but you made me realise that’s not true for me. Alex Morgan said, “Excuses are like losses: everyone has them except champions,” and I’m sure she’s right but, quite honestly, I don’t mind an excuse or two. I wanted to be a part of this game as a kid only because everything else in life was so full of social codes I didn’t understand, but football said exactly what it expected of me. It was the only place where I didn’t feel there was something wrong with me. I once wrote, “You love football because it’s instinctual. If a ball comes rolling down the street, you kick it, for the same reason that you fall in love: because you don’t know how to stop yourself.” I still feel that. It’s a simple game, as Gary Lineker said: 22 people chase a ball around for 90 minutes, and afterwards you get yelled at by your daughter.

But in the midst of all that? One little moment of something else.

Last week you injured your back on a trampoline and couldn’t train at all, so we went in only to hand over the vests and balls, but as I turned and walked back to the car, you said: “We’re not gonna stay and help?” So we did. I taught you to use the electric ball pump and, when one of your teammates hurt herself, I put on a plaster and you sat next to me and told her uplifting stories about all the times I’d been clumsy and accidentally hurt you. For instance, how one time at training I’d forgotten to remove my watch, and unfortunately you’d just grown to the level of my wrist by then, so when you came running at full speed to startle me and I turned around a little too quickly, you cracked your forehead against the watch and fell headlong on to the ground so that everyone thought I’d hit you. It wasn’t exactly my Dad of the Year moment, I’ll say that much.

Sometimes I’d prefer it if you forgot my worst moments, or at least stopped retelling them to everyone we meet. But you’re good at remembering moments. That’s a good ability to have if one loves sport, because that’s all sport is. Life, too.

Last week one of the coaches reminded me of the last time you made him burst out laughing: he has a 13-year-old daughter, a fantastic football player. You went with him to one of her training sessions and suddenly you asked: “Why do they run so much?” He said they have to do lots of athletics training in order to have the stamina to play matches, and that when you reached their age you would also have to do a lot of running. You looked at him, very calmly, and answered: “Once I get to their age I don’t think I’ll be playing football any more, in that case, because that’s not for me.” Sometimes you talk like a factory boss in an old black-and-white movie, but I get what you meant. Football is not always about football for you either; we just like being wherever it is. Yesterday you told your mother that it’s fun when she comes to the training sessions to “watch me and Dad”, as if she was coming for the two of us, not just for you. I had to sit down for a long time before I could stand up with all of that inside of my ribs.

I slept on the floor next to your bed last night, each of us holding a paw of your soft toy dog. You got it at a baseball game in Toronto and got so happy, I don’t think you remember anything about that game except for the dog. Now, when I think about it, I’m not so sure I do either. Some wise human being summarised baseball with the words: “It’s a game of failure.” Even the best batters in the world miss the ball seven times out of 10; they miss so often that they’re almost surprised when once in a while they don’t. That’s how I see all of my parenting.

That time in the car when you were five and we were fighting about corn crackers was the autumn I was suffering from depression and exhaustion. Those are difficult words, not to say but to explain. All my life people have told me that my brain doesn’t quite work the way it ought to. Sometimes it’s good; I have a fairly lively imagination which has resulted in my having a fairly weird job, which in turn is pretty lucky because I couldn’t hold down normal jobs. But sometimes it’s bad, because my brain is so good at making me believe things that aren’t true, that it can make me believe things that are dangerous.

I had been excessively stressed for a long time that autumn, and when my brain is stressed it tells me I can’t breathe. It’s a lie, obviously, but my brain can be so convincing that my lungs believe it. It’s called a panic attack, and it makes me lie on the hallway floor in the middle of the night, convinced that I’m not getting any air. That’s how lively my imagination is. The first time I had panic attacks I was your age. I remember how the school nurse thought I had asthma, but actually I was just sad most of the time, with no reason for it. I still am, sometimes. It’s no one’s fault and it doesn’t mean I’m unhappy. I’m incredibly happy. Just fragile. Sometimes my brain imagines a black hole and puts me at the bottom of it, and it can take me a while before I can imagine a rope to get myself out. It can get scary and lonely for a bit, when it’s only me and my worst ideas down there, and so while I was a child and didn’t have words for all this, I found two things that helped: books and sports. They were the same kind of escape from reality for me, and because I really, really did not like reality when I was a kid, I grew obsessed with both.

I’m telling you this now only because until that moment when you and I were sitting in the car, arguing about corn crackers, I probably thought this was all football would be for me: a way of forgetting the here and now. But when you and I were going to the training sessions that first autumn, it went the opposite way: football actually got me out of the hole. I had no choice, because you cannot be anything less than 100% concentrating when you’re in charge of putting plasters on two dozen five-year-olds. That was my reason for staying in the light, because in the dark you can’t see anything, which makes it impossible to inflate the footballs. I didn’t even have time in the car to think about how stressed out I was, because you just wouldn’t stop fighting with me about those damned corn crackers. I love you for that. I love you so much.

I’m sorry for all the things I won’t understand about you. I’m sorry for all the times I’ll be a bad father. It’s a game of failure. My only hope is that at least I’ve been around you enough that you’ve seen me trying. I tell you before every training session that it doesn’t matter if you mess up, as long as you do your best, because that’s all I hope you’ll tell me once you’re a grownup and look back on all this. All those hours in the car, all those hamburgers, all the petrol station hotdogs, all the sweets Mum doesn’t know we had on weekdays, all the fights and all the times we made up. That time you yelled, “I have the worst dad in the world!” in front of the whole team because I hadn’t noticed that you’d injured yourself (I was busy trying to figure out how to work the new electric ball pump I’d bought). And then the moment just before you fell asleep that evening, when we were each holding on to a paw of your soft toy dog, and you whispered: “OK, then. You’re not the worst.” And I whispered back: “Darth Vader has kids. I must be a bit better than him, right?” But you were asleep by then. I went into the bathroom and laundered the vests for the next training session. Packed the corn crackers into the bag. I knew the goal of organised sports was not only to raise players, but also to raise children, I just wasn’t quite prepared for how much it would also raise the parents.

We have five coaches in the team now. Last spring I invited them over for dinner and we had a few beers and laughed a lot, and the day after your mother pointed out that four new friends are more friends than she’s seen me make in the 14 years we’ve been together. I admitted that, sure, we’re sort of friends now, not just football coaches. “I don’t know how it happened,” I said. Your mother rolled her eyes: “Honestly, Fredrik? I know exactly how it happened. They’re with their kids all the time, they’re dads first, they’re a lot of other things, too, but they’re dads first. You probably don’t even know what they do for a living, and they couldn’t give a damn what you do. They just know you through your daughter. It’s probably the first identity you’ve ever been comfortable with.”

One of your other coaches told me a story about when his eldest daughter was seven years old. He was coaching her team as they were playing a match against a team from a rival city club he’d hated his whole life. So obviously, as a responsible father, in the weeks leading up to the match he put extra effort into not giving away to her how he really felt about the other team. It was just like any other match, he convinced himself. Until it started and his daughter scored. She scored lots of goals in every match and never celebrated very much, but this time she turned around, tore herself away from her teammates and ran straight on to the sideline and flung herself into her father’s arms. He just stood there and wanted to apologise to her and never let go of her at the same time. It’s so bloody hard to be a good parent. We always think we hide them so well, but you know everything about the dreams we have for you, you spend your whole childhoods with our fears in your backpacks.

Just recently, the teenage daughter of one of the coaches played a match at which parents of the other team started yelling and behaving badly. Afterwards I asked the daughter if it had affected her. She answered: “No, I’m used to that, I just block that out. The only thing that affects me is if my dad starts yelling.”

Her dad was standing beside her, his hands shoved so deep into his pockets that they were in his socks. He no longer yells at matches, but he has permanent bite marks in his lower lip. We do our absolute best, we hope you can see that we’re really, really trying. That’s all.

You used to get angry because you felt I encouraged the other players more than you. I tried to explain that at training I couldn’t be your dad, because I had to be a coach to all the girls. The other week we had a similar fight, and I was just about to embark on the same monologue when you rolled your eyes worse than your mother and said: “I knooow, when we’re here all the kids are your kids.” I wanted to point out that this was actually not at all how I’d put it, because it’s no simple matter for a grown man who makes a living out of words to admit that yours are already better than mine, but you were right. Being a coach is about seeing all kids as your own kids, rather than pretending you don’t have one of your own.

But I’d just like to interject here that I really, really don’t have the energy to fight with all 20 of them about corn crackers. I only fight that way with you.

It’s a Friday evening in October as I write the last of this. Early tomorrow morning we have training again; there’ll be icy winds and sideways rain and burgers or petrol station hotdogs afterwards. I don’t know what we’ll fight about but I’m sure we’ll find something. You have a theatre class just before football and it’s always confusing for us both when I holler out, “Stop being so dramatic!” when you dive and fall down while doing one of those activities, because that’s precisely what you’re expected to do at the other. You’ll roar at me, “I’m doing my best!” and I’ll roar back, “Me, too!” I hope I’m no worse than Darth Vader and I hope you know this was never about football for me. It could have been anything. I just wanted to be where you were, as much as possible. For as long as you let me.

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