A view from my side.
Loyalty. It’s an important concept for people to understand and to learn. It’s one I tried to instill in my kids. And it’s one I try to instill in my players. When we are in our season, at training, at a match or at a tournament, nothing…not one single thing, is more important than the team.
That doesn’t mean that their family and friends are not important. That doesn’t mean that their academics are not important. That doesn’t mean that other aspects of their lives are not important. Quite the contrary, it recognizes that there are many people, groups, activities that all require their time and attention. I get that. But what I do ask of them is that they put all of that in perspective and figure out their relationship to the team. Figure out what’s important and where your loyalties lie. Then act appropriately.
For example, I don’t expect a player to miss a practice to get a haircut. I don’t expect a player to miss a match because he has a date. I don’t expect a player to skip a tournament because he is participating in some other function that weekend. And while I give them a complete and free pass for academic issues, I expect them to learn to manage their time and get their school work done in time to be at training, at matches and at tournaments. I make sure that I communicate these expectations to players and parents. I do so before they sign to play on my team, while they have ample time to sign with another club.
These are high expectations to meet. Especially for young men playing club soccer. But it is a privilege to be part of a team. I want each player to be sure they are willing to meet these expectations. If they are, and I’ve offered them a spot, then I hope they sign up to play with us. If they aren’t, that doesn’t make them a bad person by any means. But it does mean I wouldn’t be a good fit for them as their coach and they would be better off signing with another team.
As a result, I have players that are committed to their season. I have players that are committed to their club. I have players that are committed to their team. I have players that are committed to their coach But most importantly, I have players that are committed to each other. It is, after all, the combined effort of each individual, playing the game the coach has drawn up for them, as a team, representing their club, as they try to win out their season.
This usually makes for a very intense season. Each player meets the expectations and expects his teammates to do so as well. I’ve seen players talking to teammates about rescheduling a date. I’ve seen players helping teammates with homework at the hotel. I’ve seen players helping teammates along in training, insisting they step up their effort and get more involved.
I see it in matches all the time. When a player is the victim of a cheap, hard foul, I’ve seen his teammates rally behind him. I’ve seen teammates step between players who look like they are about to square off on each other. I’ve watched as players back each other up, encouraging them to tackle hard and being there to step in if their teammate gets beat. I’ve watched players pick each other up, literally off the ground after a hard tackle, and figuratively, after a mistake.
These are all things I’ve seen players do, on their own. It is the natural result of their camaraderie and their loyalty to each other. I never insist they do these things, though over time at sessions I may suggest it. I let these behaviors develop on their own as each individual figures out who they are and how they react to situations.
But there is one thing I do insist on. There is one expression of loyalty I require of my players. While ultimately any goal that is scored is the direct result of a player beating another player and then finding the back of the net, it takes a team to make it possible. If I took the other 10 players off the field, that goal would never have an opportunity to happen. It is the result of the hard work, dedication, commitment and effort of the entire team that results in the goal. I insist that anyone who scores a goal show their respect and their loyalty by kissing the team patch on the jersey. The boys love this and I only have to mention it a few times in training before they pick it up and insist on it from each other.
So, when a goal is scored by any team I am the head coach for, you will see the goal scorer grab his jersey, raise his patch to his lips and give it a kiss. It may not be immediate. It is often after he has raised his arms in celebration and after he turns to run up field. Often he will make a run down the fan side of the field, holding his jersey to his face as he runs by encouraging the parents. Usually, though, it comes as his teammates approach him to congratulate him on the goal. As he jogs to the center of the field to meet up with his boys, you will see him show his respect and loyalty to them by that simple gesture. And what could be more appropriate since that is who the gesture is actually aimed at.
But what’s really interesting is that I’ve also seen this carried on in life. Players I’ve run into years later will often greet me by raising whatever shirt they have on to their lips and kissing the spot where the team patch would be. They’ve told me stories of mimicking the gesture after just about any great achievement. After knocking the top off an exam. After signing a new client. After closing a big sale. After winning a case or helping a patient with a problem. They tell me it’s their way of acknowledging the contribution of others to their achievement. And while not everyone understands it, they do. As one former player put it to me recently, “Sometimes, Coach, you just Gotta Kiss the Patch.”