Wings over the soccer field

Dragon flies cluster around the playing field, now hovering, now darting back and forth. I’ve noticed them for 10 summers in different places — Detroit; Orange County, California; Milwaukee; now Birmingham, Ala.

Each summer I coach a small group of teens in track and field. We travel together to meet up with hundreds of other kids and their coaches¬†playing a variety of sports. Teenagers aren’t that difficult to deal with. You require respect and in turn, give it. Occasionally you have to play adult and mean it. But not often. A light touch works best, mostly. You’re not their friend, their teacher, or their parent. You’re their coach. It forms a unique relationship and they understand that. When things click, they’ll play — or in my case, run or jump — with all their hearts.

I remember Micky, a team member from more than a decade ago. A stereotypical class clown, he threatened to spoil the team dynamics. One day I dragged him over to a quiet spot beyond the stands and read the riot act. Because I was not his teacher or friend, I said, I could get rid of him just like that. Something got through. He started working hard. He became a team leader and model for everyone. My assistant coach and I marveled at the change.

Anyhow, at these gatherings, competition starts in the morning. Always in this August week the dragon flies gather to greet us. To me the silent cloud of insects form a recurring welcoming committee. The kids are oblivious to the dragon flies, but I can’t stop observing this hovering, benign army. They seem to observe collectively what the humans are up to, flitting along the edge of the fields.

On a free morning I went over to watch a girls soccer game under a sunny sky and high humidity. They played for the bronze medal of the competition. Their intensity surprised me. They played a physical game with as much rough contact as a boys flag football game I’d seen earlier. Our goalie was out with a sprained or torn quad. The substitute goalie was festooned with bandages and elastic wrap.

I’d been drinking beer the evening before with the two coaches. Lots of jokes and comradery. Today they were all business, shouting instructions to their teams but standing not 30 feet from one another. Ditto for the girls. Earlier that evening, at a downtown block party chaperoned by the coaches, the competitors mingled in laughing packs, sharing all of the instant content created on smart phones. Today they wore game faces.

The same face had appeared on a girl the day before at our track meet. She excelled at shot put and drew admiring wows from the boys.

Goalie sub has injury issues

The score of the soccer game stood 1-1 at the closing whistle on regulation time. The dragon flies seemed to gather with more intensity as the first overtime started. I stood behind our bench, watching the anxiety build in the players. Our team was dotted with injury. The opposing girls had avoided getting hurt in the several games they’d all played in the last three days.

Each time they took a shot at our goalie, I flinched. The dragon flies seemed to hover in suspension until she caught or batted the ball away.

A second overtime ensued, concluding with the game still tied at 2-2.

In the end they outscored us 3-2. In our corner of the field as the players switched out their shoes for flip-flops, several of the girls shed tears. No bronze medal this year. The coach’s voice cracked as he thanked the team.

By the bus ride back to the central gathering point, girls from the opposing teams were talking. They’re weren’t ready to laugh and share selfies quite yet. That would come at the evening activity. The drive to win had been real and powerful. But so was their emotional resilience.

A few years ago I coached a girl with college track aspirations. Her parents pushed — too much. When she came in second in the 800, she sat down on the track just past the finish line and sobbed. But that evening she was a regular kid again, engaging in the deep conversations and exaggerated laughter of which only teens are capable.

As the bus door unfolded shut and we prepared to leave the soccer venue, I looked back at the next two teams getting ready. The dragon flies had regrouped, watching to see what would happen next.