I recently had the opportunity to work with some young elite level soccer players. My work with them focused primarily on how they communicated with each other and how effective communication skills build a stronger team. I believe there is power in what we say and how we choose to say it. I was fortunate to not only work with this team in a classroom setting but also to observe them in a game.
The day of their game happened to mark one year since my last day as a college soccer coach. After giving 20-years to the game I had made the decision to resign from coaching to focus my work on developing people. Since my resignation, I had not been to a single soccer game. It felt strange to unpack my coaching chair and sit on the sidelines again. The question I am most frequently asked is, “do you miss coaching?” I often say I miss the day to day connections with my players but no, I don’t miss coaching because I feel like I am doing what I am supposed to be doing.
During the first half, I enjoyed seeing how the player’s insights in the classroom were being applied on the field. It was also fun to see what soccer skills each player brought to the game. There was one player I really enjoyed watching. She wore #2 and she was physically smaller than many of the other players, but she was really good on the ball. My guess is at some point in her young career she got tired of being knocked around and a good coach probably told her that if she could dance on the ball, she’d get knocked around less. Clearly, she listened.
When the whistle blew for halftime something very bizarre took place. The truth is, it was so strange that I had to follow up with an email to the coach to ask if this really did happen. Sadly, it did take place.
The players came off the field, they grabbed their water bottles, and they began to chat with each other about how they could each do better in the second half. Then the Referee came over the sidelines. He knelt down in front of the two female coaches, leaned in, and calmly said, “Coach, I need to let you know that #2 fouled the same player two times and so I had to tell her to be more gentle. I just wanted to let you know.”
As I said before, there is power in what we say and how we choose to say it. Here are some of the questions I wrestled with after contemplating his words:
1. When was the last time a boy was asked to be “more gentle” in an elite level soccer game? Seriously, when does that happen? Do Officials pull boys aside and ask them to be “more gentle?” My first coaching job was a U18 boys team and no Offical ever asked one of our players to be “more gentle.” When one of them committed a foul, a foul was called and that was it. Our culture celebrates when boys go in hard on a tackle, play fearlessly in the air, or push themselves physically. We don’t ask boys to be “more gentle” and we shouldn’t ask this of girls either.
2. What does it really mean to ask a girl to be “more gentle?” Here are some synonyms for the word gentle; benign, mellow, quiet, soft, tame, domesticated, trained, bland, docile, soft-hearted, and sweet-tempered. As a former Head Coach at several NCAA schools, I can tell you those are not the words we used to describe our future student-athletes. To ask a girl to be more gentle in a contact sport is to ask her to be less than her full potential.
3. Why did the Official need to let the coach and player know that she needed to be “more gentle”? The truth is he didn’t need to share this because our society already makes this statement to girls and women. We hear this message on the radio, it’s plastered on our social media, and it is an undercurrent of pop culture. The world screams to girls and women that we need to embrace a role which is soft and tame. You don’t need to tell us, we hear it loud and clear.
As I sat on the sidelines that day I found myself reflecting on how I used my words to express my expectations for my players and I wrestled with the profound power of those words. If you’ve ever played for me, coached with me, coached against me, or found yourself within 200 yards of a field I was coaching on, I can guarantee you’ve heard me yell, “GOOD BATTLE!” This is a phrase I frequently used in training and in games. I wanted to let my players know that I celebrated their courage to battle on the field.
So do I miss coaching? Maybe some parts, but I have too much work to do in helping people to understand the significance of their own influence. This work includes teaching adults about the power of their own words and teaching young people that no one has the right to use their words to try and limit who someone can be.
I am certain this Official didn’t intend to use his words in a harmful way, but as many great scholars have shared, “words create worlds.” So what kind of world do you want to create?
There is power in telling a girl to be more gentle and there is power in consciously choosing your words to encourage a girl to be brave and strong. We need to be aware of the words we use and how we use them. And when words are used in a deconstructive way we need to speak truth to power.
So girls … step into your space, hold your head high, be proud of your bruises and scars, follow your chosen path, speak your truth, use your voice, be yourself (your full self) and make sure you hear all of us who are yelling “good battle!”
You’ve got this …