A few months ago I wrote about no longer coaching my son’s soccer team. This fall I have moved on from that 9 year-old boys’ team to my daughter’s 7 year-old squad. Let’s just say it’s been… a transition. The 9 year-olds, especially in those last few seasons, had really developed their skills and understanding of the game. We had progressed to using phrases like “check,” “square,” and “drop.” When they came to practice, they would (generally) listen, execute the drills, and understand what I was instructing them to do.
It did not take me long to remember what it’s like coaching 7 year-olds. In the first practice, one girl literally fell to the ground when I said, “drop” (I’m not sure what she would have “checked” had I used that term). When I asked them to stand five yards apart and work on two-touch passing, I got a few blank stares combined with distances that left me wondering if it was their understanding of “five” or “yards” we needed to work on.
And then we had our first game. It felt like trying to verbally control Foosball players. I found myself calling out from the sideline, “Now you kick it to her, then you kick it to her, and…” Yeah. It didn’t work. On the ride home I realized I needed to re-think my approach and expectations. I decided on three simple priorities for the season: stay “jump rope” distance apart; dribble—don’t kick; and encourage each other.
If you are a parent (or “coach”) in the college admission “season,” I think these goals (pun intended) apply to you as well.
Jump Rope Distance
Clearly, the kids needed to see what five yards looks like, so I brought a jump rope to our next practice and had them take turns stretching it out and holding it. We talked about that being an appropriate separation to keep while you are on the field. At that distance, you can pass to each other and help each other defend. Maintaining that length keeps you from bumping into each other or knocking each other over while trying to get the ball.
As a parent in this process, you are a coach—not a player. You are a parent—not an applicant. Sometimes you may need to go for a walk or drive to re-examine your game plan and check-in: have you recently said something like, “We are taking the SAT next weekend,” or “Our first choice is Purdue”? We have all winced while watching through the slits in our fingers as a coach forgets their role and runs out onto the field, attempting to play for the team. Don’t be that coach! This means asking questions about college essays and making helpful edits or suggestions—not re-writing them with words like “lugubrious” or “obsequious.” This means backing away when you are at a college visit and letting your son or daughter ask their questions of a tour guide or an admission counselor. In a short year or two, they will be on a college campus. They will need to be able to advocate and navigate for themselves. Are you coaching them to be ready for that?
In a recent Washington Post article, Scott Lutostanski discusses executive function skills, which include organization, time management, and planning. He asserts parents need to be disciplined and cognizant of taking opportunities to empower their kids to grow and develop in these areas. Searching for, applying to, getting in, getting disappointed, and ultimately deciding upon a college are all opportunities to help your student enhance these invaluable skills. Don’t steal the ball. Remember: Jump rope distance.
In practice, I let them simply kick and run after the ball. When they did that, the ball often went out-of-bounds or a defensive player quickly took it away. They realized they were out of control and ineffective. Since then we’ve been focused on dribbling—keeping the ball close so they can cut or change direction when necessary. As a parent/coach, that’s your job too. The college admission process is not Foosball where you simply turn the rod and control the players or the game. You cannot control admission decisions. You cannot control merit scholarships or financial aid packages. You cannot control the competition in any given applicant pool. Slow the game down. Keep perspective. One play at a time. One game at a time. Dribbling allows your team to keep things close and make choices, adjustments, and intentional decisions when the unexpected or uncontrollable happens. Dribble—don’t kick.
Encourage Each Other!
Most of the girls on our team have yet to score a goal. We have made it clear that success is not about scoring. Winning looks different for each one of our players. For some it is making a good pass, while for others it is performing a new dribbling move, or using their non-dominant foot to trap the ball. One of the most gratifying parts of the season has been listening to the players on the bench cheering for their teammates. Some of the loudest celebrations have come after a teammate makes a “jump rope” pass. The entire bench starts chanting “jump rope, jump rope!”
What is winning for your daughter or son in their college experience? Not where, coach (and not what you want!). What do they want to study? What kind of faculty and students do they want to be around? What part of your state, region, or country are they excited about spending their colleges years in? Keep asking them these questions.
I hope you will not make winning about getting in to a particular college. Coach so your son or daughter doesn’t feel like your expectation, love, and approval is tied up in getting in (read: scoring), but rather that your joy is in seeing them find multiple colleges that match their goals. Winning is finding affordable financial options everyone is excited about. Winning is staying connected and supporting your son or daughter—holding them up and celebrating them, rather than achieving a particular outcome.
In documentaries or press conferences, players do not talk about how the coach got them to something (titles, awards, etc.) but how they got them as a person—they built trust, believed in them, and encouraged them relentlessly. Similarly, in retirement speeches, coaches rarely mention championships or trophies, but rather define success by their bond with players. It’s going to be a great season. Go get ‘em, coach!
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