Coaching varsity track was how I taught students in my English classes the concept of irony. And then came rec league soccer.

Fourteen years ago or so, over a holiday break, my principal called to talk to me about coaching varsity track and field at the high school where I was teaching English. The problems with that idea should have been obvious to me. I didn’t know the first thing about track, after all–I only ran in cases of emergency. I’d never even been to a track meet. My idea of a track coach was the gym teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off who chased kids around in a golf cart.

Life has its way of putting me into odd places, though, and soon that cold February I found myself on a rough asphalt ring behind the gym trying desperately to look like I knew what I was doing. I filled the time with running and sprinting drills–things I felt relatively sure about–but when it came time to fill out my first meet sheet (the roster of which athletes on your team will participate in which events), I remember having a conversation with one of the assistant coaches, Meaghann, in which she discovered I had no clue how it worked. If we’d been coaching football, it would have been as if she realized I didn’t know that you called plays for each down.

In time, we began to earn respectable finishes in our conference meets. We advanced teams to regional track events and even state track meets. I nagged the county athletic director until our school got a new track facility placed on the system’s capital improvements plan.

Occasionally I’d step in something that proved I still had a fragile grasp of how to coach serious sprinters, distance runners, jumpers, and throwers. And now and then a grumpy parent would loudly complain from the stands about what I wasn’t getting right. My gut reaction in those instances was to march into the bleachers, hand said parent my clipboard and stopwatch, and walk away.

I wound up coaching track for three seasons before I changed jobs. What I lacked in my ability to coach athletes I tried to make up for in organization, management, and encouragement. Each season I grew a little more confident, and we got a little better, but those two things aren’t related whatsoever.

Flash forward to this spring and our fourth (fifth?) season signing up our own children for sports. For the first time, both Julia and Thomas would be in the same soccer league, one designed for 5-7 year-olds.

Thomas ended up with a group of kiddos coached by a player’s grandfather, someone I’d coincidentally worked with at Davidson. His first practice involved an assortment of drills, and I was astonished with how quickly the coach had learned all of their names. Thomas was a tentative participant at first, so the coach quickly learned his name by way of having to shout it over and over, urging him to move through the drills in good form.

Parenting children does absurdly weird things to you, and making quick judgments about your children’s coaches is one of those things. I was quietly pleased that Thomas had a strong coach–Thomas’s last soccer season was fantastic, but he was the oldest on the team, and now he was among the youngest. It showed in his attitude, which could best be described as “let the older, better kids take the ball and score the goals, and I’ll run along behind you.”

Thomas’s was the better of the coaches we’d had–it was clear this wasn’t his first rodeo. We’d had moms and dads who meekly stepped into their roles as coaches, parents who struggled to herd the cats that are four year-olds. It was chaos, and I did not begrudge their frenetic jobs.

And I truly cannot pass any critical judgment on these kind souls who not only obligated themselves to faithfully driving their pre-kindergartners to the rec center twice a week but signed up to lead this rag-tag effort. Lord knows my time on the high school track taught me how important it was as a parent to keep my mouth shut.

But parents are monsters, even if they’re only quiet monsters. I kept track of the score in every game, even though we officially didn’t keep score, and made mental lists of which personnel combinations were most effective on the soccer pitch. When things were running well, I’d gladly bark encouragement–Go! Go! Go!–but I’d fold my arms if a coach never dealt with a ball hog, or someone got subbed out and never subbed back in.

So this spring, when Kelly text messaged me to say that Julia’s soccer team still didn’t have a volunteer coach, the best I could muster was an eye roll. I knew myself well enough to know I shouldn’t raise my hand for it. I had a few conflicting dates when I couldn’t be there, anyway, so that gave me the easy out.

You know where this is going.

But it doesn’t get there immediately. At the first practice, while Thomas’s team is all but doing military formations, Julia’s team was managed by (I think) the first parent who happened to show up, someone who admitted she didn’t really know much at all about soccer. The first practices went about how you’d expect. They resembled what I figured my first track practices must have looked like. (I just now winced remembering the time I called it track rehearsal.)

Julia’s team practiced like this for the first two weeks of the season. The kids seemed to really enjoy each other, and I figured that even if this wasn’t the Best. Season. Ever for Julia’s soccer development, it would still end up being okay.

The morning of the first game, Kelly texted again. “Julia’s coach had a death in the family and can’t make the game.”

And now you see how I ended up being the other coach.

I had a few things on my side, including a basic understanding of how to play soccer, but also a lot of maturity since my days as a clueless, 23 year-old varsity coach who could barely run a mile. I’d changed poopy diapers since then, and dammit, that changes a man.

That evening, our friends whose children were also playing in the spring league couldn’t help themselves. “Hey, Coach!” they’d call out, grinning. I grinned back, throwing up my hands, shrugging at the irony. I might have still been wearing my loafers from work.

We had Armanti, D’Mar, Eleana, Gregory, Julia, Karmin, Leo, and Trinity. The kids wore kelly green uniforms and called themselves the Tigers.

That first game was mostly about keeping the right number of kids on the field and fairly rotating them in and out each quarter. I learned their names, I high-fived them every chance I could, and I started learning about each of their strengths.

Armanti was fearless in charging into the pack and coming away with the ball, but he would run forty yards just to advance the ball five toward the goal. D’Mar was young and lacked a little bit of the physical coordination the older kids had, but he volunteered for almost anything. Eleana loved playing goalie, and probably saved twenty goals in her time in the net. Gregory had the best footwork, and his long legs made him the fastest runner, but it took him a while to close the deal and put the ball in the goal.

Julia found herself as an exceptionally effective sweeper and had a smart knack for reading the field defensively. Karmin had a great kick and helped at goalie when Eleana wasn’t there. She was also hilariously silly. Leo, one of our five year-olds, started the season at tortoise-speed with the ball and ended taking shots on goal. And Trinity, who was also five, frequently stepped into the inevitable knots of kids and magically got the ball out. That kid hustled.

We tied the first game and lost the next one. Although I kept track of the score in my head while I was coaching our team on the field, something truly funny happened–I stopped caring about it. One game, when we weren’t playing well and the other team certainly was, I realized it was more important to celebrate the smaller successes–the takeaways, the blocked shots, the near-misses. So we did just that, and soon the cheers from the sideline faded away.

After two or three games, I realized it was easier to focus on one skill to work on for the game, and to my astonishment, the kids seemed to actually get better. Yes, they were five and six and seven year-olds, and they could often act like it, but none of them were parked in the clover picking flowers. At least not for long. Over the course of the season, they began to learn their places. They learned how to throw the ball in. We chipped away at goal kicks, corner kicks, opening kicks.

The week in the schedule when I had conflicts, divine intervention delivered four inches of rain and two cancelled games, the last of which was rescheduled for this past Saturday morning. We’d gone the entire season without a win–only ties and losses–and I was quietly hoping for a chance at victory.

Our final game was a good match-up, and both teams put up a good defensive effort. For the first time, we’d resisted the temptation to bunch up on the ball. The kids actually passed it to one another. And when in the second half we had a great defensive stop, followed by a pass to midfield, and then Gregory broke through the defense with a full head of steam and scored, the entire team celebrated the goal–because they realized that each of them played a part in the process. As silly as it sounds, I am going to remember that sequence for a long, long time.

We finished the game 2-0. We had our first victory, and even though it would be our only one for the season, I was on cloud nine. With only a few exceptions, every time we took the field, we were the best team we could be, and we were better than the team we were last week.

Their coach was better, too, by the end. And I was reminded how much fun it is to work with kids in such a different way–something I first learned when I stepped out of the English classroom and onto the track. Coaching, and the inherent physicality of directing people in sport, is a very different form of education, one I’d never trained for in college. But it is deeply gratifying to bring a group of people together in an effort to achieve a common goal, to help position them and encourage them and celebrate with them along the way, and especially to watch them grow and develop confidence.

When I began my short run as a soccer coach, I thought this story would ultimately be about what it was like to coach my own daughter. And yes, working with Julia was the cherry on top of this whole thing. We had a great time.

Just as it is on the soccer field, though, this particular experience was really about the team. It filled up a gap in my life that I wasn’t even really aware I had, and I am deeply grateful.

This fall I’ll start my graduate program, and while I’m still not sure what my class schedule will be or how I’ll manage going back to school while working a full-time job, I’m pretty sure I won’t have time to coach soccer again.

You can bet, though, that for the first time, I’ll be more than ready to raise my hand.