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No job for old men a mini memoir.

It is finished. I have crossed the Rubicon. My 26-year career as a head college soccer coach ended with a whimper. It was a good run: Six jobs; all three NCAA divisions; both genders; sacked twice (one overturned); hundreds of job applications, probably 30+ on-site interviews; a dozen offers I turned down; the others rejecting me.


Remarkably, through it all, I had one lovely, highly-mobile wife and two sons that turned out pretty well. Drifting about affably, I went every new place hopefully, optimistically.

But there was never anywhere that I didn't want, eventually, to leave.

There are reasons that 60-year-olds aren't coaching in the YouTube/MySpace age. I just didn't have the energy to steel myself against the traumas of the season anymore. Those deep reservoirs of energy were reduced to shallow puddles of fatigue.

Coaching became too frenzied, too noisy; too grim. The constant drive for efficiency wearied me. Over the years it became less enjoyable. I remember a young man on my first team back in 1982 that used to run down the field smiling. He was having fun. I don't see that anymore. And I'm not up for controversy as much as I used to be. I'd rather withdraw.

The pleasure of athletic competition has been trumped by the athletic holy of holies--winning regardless of collateral costs. And the addiction to winning builds its masses of slaves little by little until compromises begin to occur.

Good people aren't so good anymore. Coaches driven to achieve results didn't always display integrity and character under pressure. Often a dark side emerged. Who will ever remember if you finished 11-7 or 7-11? Or if you finished in second or fifth place? My ex-players tell me they remember moments, not records.

I don't fool myself much anymore. There is nothing unique about me. I was a flawed coach trying to navigate through an increasingly complex and demanding athletic world. Struggles you could count on; the joys came less often. But no worries, there are a squadron of "young guns" out there eager to replace me--swashbuckling young guns with "new" ideas, ready to move the program to the proverbial "next level." (Why do I always think of those tiered inner city parking garages?)

My rival coaches became less collegial over the years. I miss the easy going camaraderie I used to enjoy before and after matches. I remember standing on the touchline near mid-field chatting with rival coaches during the matches.

I had a few coaching mates with whom I shared a comfortable bonhomie--checking in often by phone, exchanging views of rival teams, sharing frustrations, and joys. No more. Too much pressure to win now. Lots of time spent "sugarcoating" and spinning. Most of them are too busy--business being the great panacea.

Disappointing as well, many of my coaching mates don't speak honestly and freshly spew inane cliches. Coachspeak could be scripted: Always something about "moving up levels," players "stepping up," taking "one game at a time," "moving in the right direction," "finding rhythm," "giving 100%" (sometimes doing the mathematically impossible and giving more than 100%). Lots of spin.

The words seem worn out with excessive usage. Can't anybody speak freshly and spontaneously anymore? I listen to European coaches interviewed after matches. Most of them speak thoughtfully and with clarity. Sometimes even acknowledging, dare I even say it, that the other team was simply better.


I no longer want to hold myself tensely against the athletic world. The madness of the now year-round recruiting process drained me. After 20 recruiting calls, who motivates the motivator? Mediocre women's players were getting athletic scholarships due to the addition of dozens of programs over the years. There are just not enough good players to fill the rosters.

I went to one tournament last year where there were 12 club teams and 52 college coaches! Can you imagine how many phone calls the strong players were going to get telling them how special, how great they are? Then they will choose a school, come out for the team and realize--that they aren't special.

Recruiting has escalated to the point that it has become a vicious and phony process that steals time and energy from everyone involved. Coaches have become admission counselors.

I always offered my team quality, well-planned training sessions. But at the end, they sensed that I had lost my zeal. Honesty came more easily lately. Gently, I told a few of my players the blunt truth--they just weren't good enough--something I never would have done in the past. They didn't like hearing that. I said "no" to requests when the right answer was "no." That didn't go over too well. To be fair, I didn't spend the time nurturing the young women that I did in the past. No cliches, no hollow slogans, no banal goals. But the players want that chest-thumping bravado. Grounded, unpretentious plain-speak is de rigueur.

I wearied of their "group think" mentality (a strong girl opines and the rest follow along like little ducklings). Their giggly artificial laughter, easy tears and girlish dependence on each other wore on me. And the hugging! They joyfully greet one other like their climbing parties just stumbled upon each other at the summit of Everest--when in reality, they had lunch together three hours ago.

Their neediness was energy sapping. Their fear of holding teammates accountable and their lack of courage to think and act independently were discouraging as well. (College women may be the demographic that leads the world in agreeing with each other).

I quoted Eleanor Roosevelt to them, "When everyone is thinking alike, no one is thinking much at all." And then Emerson, "To conform is to lose your soul." They didn't like that much either. A few brazen kids, girls with no experience other than small town high school soccer, even began questioning my tactics and the quality of my training sessions--areas where there is no democracy, that are not negotiable. Some of my players took the long route to adulthood. All of them are too young to know how little they know.

The intricate web of my connections with my team ranged from light and joyous to heavy and miserable. Coaching is like owning a small-town general store--you have to deal with a little bit of everything. Their abilities ranged from highly-skilled Co staggeringly inept. Each team had its own personality. One or two players could go a long way towards ruining things and, conversely, a great leader made things so much easier. I had just two great leaders in 26 years. Bright, lively young women that bridged the gap between teammates and coaches and handled team issues with aplomb. Happily, both are coaches now.

My career led me to the privilege of working with some unforgettable kids. "Bloody Kelly" (I threatened to wrap her in foam to protect her mates during training), "Bruiser Broos" (a gentle lad in spite of his nickname), "Princess Kelsey" (her teammates wanted to present her a thorny crown), "Hairy Dave" (had hair in places I didn't think it could grow), and "Space Kate" (relocated to Mars) among others.

I had some lovely young people that were like a son or daughter to me. Most though, wanted me just to be their coach. And there were a few I couldn't wait to see the back of. My favorites were the independent thinkers with great work ethic and little ego.

The player that impacted me most was a young man that had the guts to live up to his own convictions and stand against the whole team. I had suspended a player for an obscene act during a match. I didn't see the act, but the opposing coach and a few fans told me about it. The player denied doing it. I told him I didn't believe him and that the suspension stood.

Before we took the field for the next match, one of my players said the team wouldn't play if I didn't let the suspended player participate. I asked them if they all were not going to play. This one brave young man rose and said, "I'm playing coach." Reeking with integrity, he stood alone. I loved him for his courage.

I got to coach just one great player in all my years. A pleasure to watch, technically excellent, tactically wily she was a scintillating finisher yet capable of pinpoint passes when tightly marked. A mercurial player, she scored 102 goals in four years.

Two glorious matches stand out. My gritty Mercyhurst men's team upset our nationally-ranked local rival Gannon, 1-0, in 1985 before over 500 fans. My Mount Holyoke women's team, badly out womaned athletically and technically, outshot 22-2 by nationally ranked Williams in 1990, still won, 2-0. Tactics, will, and luck helped us prevail both times. My most crushing defeat came during a conference semi-final when my undefeated and ranked Gordon women's side crashed out of the tourney.

My favorite match was my Central teams' 1-0 loss to our rival Luther. A scruffy group of 14 players, overmatched in every way possible fought like the Norwegian resistance--willfully, resolutely, and quietly. After the handshakes, a wonderful thing happened. The whole team and both coaches gathered spontaneously near midfield, circled and held hands. Stunningly, no one said a word. I felt perfect happiness during this moment of grace.

Humanity can be lovely. They knew they had struggled well and that there was great honor in their effort. There were many sparkling moments over the years that made my heart sing; strong leaders emerging, team unity blossoming, players learning to share my love of the game, watching tactical understanding grow, and seeing my players shining with purpose as they competed.

My athletes had little empathy for me. Maybe at 61, I lacked relevance in their eyes. They see an old man. On the field, I still feel like a kid. They don't see me as a human being leading a life of my own. They rarely asked me any personal questions. They didn't notice how things affected me. (Only paranoids, it seems, notice things anymore.)

This last year I e-mailed them before the season to tell them I was going to California to be with my ill mother. When they came into preseason two weeks later one player of 18 asked my how my mother was doing. At 20 years old, they lacked the maturity to contemplate the person that I am. Rather, I was someone to serve them, to provide for them.

This "entitlement mentality" seems to have grown over the years. They have little training in the selfless path of putting themselves second.

I stepped back more these past few years giving the team leaders a greater role. I said less. I have come to believe in the power of a few well-chosen words. That Socratic ideal of self-reliance led to mixed results depending mostly on the quality of the leaders. There was always a line between me and my players. That line widened the past few years.

My honest, "jargon-free" coaching style that characterized my last years didn't go over well. Student-athletes 18-22 years old want jargon. The players want macho talk, bravado, and gratuitous chest-thumping. It says in Ecclesiastes that the more words you speak the less they mean. These players will learn that in time.

Each passing season brought less joy. Winning the matches mattered, but not. as much as it used to. The joy of winning, I found, faded immediately and precipitously. My experience showed that the singular pursuit of winning can only lead to unhappiness.

I measured my players primarily on the effort they put forth in training and during matches and their improvement over the season. But these subjective goals are not acceptable to ego-driven administrators, alums, or boosters. Sadly, even in NCAA Division III, at most schools, you have to win or you're gone.

The sweetest time was always just before the season started. I savored possibilities, relished our potential, allowed myself the luxury of hope, sometimes even fantasizing grandly.

This is okay because nothing had happened yet, no discoveries made and nothing acted upon. Then we began. The fantasy cocoon burst. I had to make decisions, strive to narrow the generation canyon, alter the links between people, dole out praise and criticism, hold to principles, and deal with things. Then the season began. My players darkened and brightened my life daily. They wounded and nourished me. Harmony was never the norm.

Evaluating my career, I would say I was an average coach, no more. There were moments I thought I was a great coach, but they never lasted long. I was a flawed coach, sometimes too critical of myself due to a conscience that worked overtime. I always took pride in throwing myself fully into the season. You can only do so much, but you have to do that much--and I did. Gradually though, things seemed to lose purpose and as a result, I became less diligent.

Recruiting was my downfall. I got "totally tired" of calling "Amber" every week to see how she was, "like", doing. Recently, one girl I had called several times paused after I identified myself and my school and said, "Now, where is Central?" I felt like an ant. What do you say the fifth time you call?

When a mother told me I was the sixth coach to call her daughter one night, I just quit calling her. Then I called everybody less, resorting to e-mail. My recruiting classes shrunk, leading to smaller squads, which put me in dire straights with administration.

Speaking of administration, the thing I will miss least are staff meetings. Some meetings, especially regularly scheduled ones with no particular agenda, were simply unnecessary. The information could have been dispensed in memo form. These heavily scripted, mundane meetings led to complaining and discord among the coaches. They would be endured with gaping mouths and eyes glazed like they were in shell shock.

The rhetoric rang ruefully in our ears. A few coaches found innovative ways to cope: One colleague quite impressively mastered the art of sleeping with his eyes open. Another leaned back under the air conditioner to block out the sound, throwing in an occasional nod to feign interest.

The timing of the nods were off though, which led to suspicion from the A.D.D. The worst thing, other than the droning athletics director, was that 10% of the people did 90% of the talking. I've not experienced "water boarding," but it couldn't be much worse than these interminable meetings.

Maybe the government could use the tapes, play them over and over to solicit confessions from the terrorists. Toward the end 1 never said much. I was quiet, polite--almost like a visitor.

I was a nomadic coach with a long-tradition of leaving places. It was always wonderful when I first arrived at a new place. Gusts of admiration warmed me, the attractive alternative to the usually "incompetent outgoing coach." Then, after awhile something inside started to churn, I'd get restless, thinking things might be better at the next place. Or the players or administration would figure out my shortcomings. Or I would screw up and have to move on, becoming the "incompetent outgoing coach."

Off I would go to the next better place to reinvent myself, to be embraced as a savior. So the cycle went.

Paul Simon, I think it was, sang about getting all his old girlfriends together for one night. 1 wish I could do that with all my players from over the years. How beautiful it would be to see what they've become, how their lives have turned out. Given the perspective of time, I wonder what they would say to me. Did I matter to my players; did I make a difference in their lives? Not much to most of them. But I know I touched a few.

Regrets? Yes, a few. Too often earlier in my career I caved to player pressure when I should have stood on principle. To save my job, on two occasions I took unwarranted abuse from bullying bosses.

I was too soft with some kids, giving too many chances. I coddled and sheltered my players too much. I subbed kids into matches that weren't good enough players just to keep peace.

On occasion, 1 sacrificed spontaneity, kneeling at the alter of political correctness, choosing my words carefully so as not to make anyone "uncomfortable." My biggest regret? In the last few years, I didn't ask as much of myself.

Strengths? I loved the game and conveyed that to my players. "Enjoy the experience" was my mantra the last few years. I wish I would have emphasized that earlier. I was compassionate, offering a gentle touch to my players and colleagues when needed. lama masterful organizer. I kept things simple and spoke articulately. My players were taught to win and lose with grace and dignity and without excuse.

I didn't put a happy face on everything and I never spun reality to save fragile egos. Tough times are when kids can grow the most. Coaches often gloss over the sad parts, the unhappy times, the disappointments, the pain. I didn't.

Here are the most important things I learned over the years:

1. If you want a good team, recruit good players. If you want a great team, recruit great players. Coaching expertise matters but you have to have the horses/fillies.

2. Athletic participation is just a wonderful phase to pass through on the way to real life. No more.

3 Humility is the number one quality of the good teacher.

4 The only person whom you can truly satisfy is yourself.

5 Only a good person can be a good coach.

6 There is not a lot new. You cycle through the same phases almost every season.

7 My players won't have the perspective to truly measure their athletic experience until later in life.

8. Effort doesn't always affect outcome--but sometimes it does.

9 Real power comes from serving your people well.

10 If you just listen to your heart, you will usually know what path to take.

I liked myself more at the end because I was the same on the outside as I was on the inside. I developed a philosophy and stood by it. And gradually over the years, though I didn't always like it, I learned to accept the college soccer world as it was offered--not as I wanted it to be.

I end my career in the Division III wilderness of rural Iowa. No ceremony. My shelves empty and my walls bare. No one asking if they can help carry boxes. In fact, I feel like I have become invisible to my colleagues-just an old guy on his way out. My career arc meandered from idealism to ambition to pragmatism to resignation. I am wiser than the boy who started this career all those years ago. (Oh, to have known then what I know now.)

I am wearier, too. Borrowing from Dickens, I enjoyed my career and I didn't. I was happy and unhappy. There were wonderful moments; there was misery. The joys trumped the disappointments--but just barely. We all only get to live a small part of what we are. I chose to coach college soccer. I can't think of anything else I would have rather done. What I liked best was making a living out of my passion and my hobby. How many can say that? Envy me.

After more than a quarter century, I will now make something different of my life. And my new companion, peace of mind, will go with me. I find it difficult to envision a new life. But I know this: I'm ready to leave this one.

By Rick Burns, Former Soccer Coach, Central College, Pella, IA
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Title Annotation:SOCCER
Author:Burns, Rick
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2008
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