The adrenaline fills up his chest, swells him up like a balloon from the inside out. He dwells in this sensation of utter excitement and anticipation. He feels good today, real good. He doesn’t text his girlfriend, doesn’t talk to his mom, doesn’t even think complete thoughts in his head. He just is. He’s this being sitting in a car staring out the window on the way to practice, and only the excitement and the rush of adrenaline in his chest matters. Then he remembers.
He begins to think. And think. And think. Unknowingly, he sets his jaw. He still stares out the window, but no longer does he do so blankly. His brow furrows and his eyes sharpen. He stares accusingly at the other cars. He takes a breath and sighs. This sigh, however, is in no way nonchalant or defeated, it comes out of his mouth in a tight icy line. He fills the air with the venom that’s inside his head. He takes a swig from his water jug, the frigid, arctic water shocks his senses. He finds and grinds an ice cube with his teeth, driving his emotion into the ice with crushing force.
The car stops. He blows out another long breath, this time out his nose. Focus. His mom waves at the door in an impatient fashion. He flips back to reality and begins to feel a twinge of rage again, sparked by this simple unimportant action. The door pops open and he walks toward the field. He takes in the familiar smell of grass and sweat, and breathes in the open air. He tosses his bag and water down by the bench, and the water jug pops open and leaks a little bit. More anger. More tension. More distaste. He begins warming up with the team, and suddenly he senses this creeping presence.
Wherever there is no hope, this presence is found. It’s what creeps around corners and spies and scrutinizes. Sometimes it appears in the form of a person, sometimes not. This was one of those times.
Coach Phil is a bear of a man with an unsteady gaze. He lumbers from spot to spot, but as an essence he’s a phantom. He’s everywhere at once. The boys sense him the moment he steps onto the field. Whether they actually see him or not they know he’s there.
“Why aren’t you doing the warm-up I tell you to do every practice? I shouldn’t have to tell you. Everybody. Five suicides.”
The team gathers on the sideline and mumbles and grumbles about how hard of a practice this will be, but nobody speaks loud enough to be heard by anyone other than themselves and the boys right next to them. To be heard by Phil would mean torture. The team pushes through the suicides and at the end everybody’s tired from all of the running. Phil, on the other hand, is just getting started. Phil immediately sets up a drill where the boys have to send a ball long, cross it, and finish. One of the boys sends the ball too far and his teammate is unable to cross it.
“We need playable balls. This is lazy.”
Phil never raises his voice above loud talking. He never yells. His words, however, don’t need to be yelled. They cut through each of the boys straight to their uneasy senses of confidence and self esteem, and stay there taunting them for hours on end. Hardly ever do Phil’s words get a response, and when they do, it’s a nod of the head 99% of the time. The boys try and raise their level of intensity but they’re gassed and have no extra energy reserves. The boy is the next one to send the ball.
He focuses and concentrates all his thoughts on the ball. He thinks about how he’ll send the ball, and exactly where on his foot he needs to hit it for the ball to do what he wants. The ball is initiated, but his focus wavers. Phil is at the back of his mind. He is the only gateway to being on the starting lineup. He believes if he can please Phil enough he’ll get a spot. His only goal in this moment is to play to please. Please so he can play more. His cold, hard focus is gone, replaced by the nuclear fear of failure. His confidence has been bashed repeatedly by both himself and Phil. His desire to please clouds his thinking and blinds him with the fear. Every error he makes is noticed and noted by Phil, and every one is more reason for Phil to bench him. He knows this and it scares the living daylights out of him.
The ball is here and he plays it. He thinks he’s focused, but he’s really lost all focus and become blinded to the reason he plays. He sends the ball, but the moment it leaves his foot he knows it’s too deep.
“F***ing hell,” he whispers to himself. He throws his head back and glowers. He jogs to the next line and highfives his teammate with a zing.
“Owww! Dude you give the hardest highfives.”
He huffs in response and gestures toward the field to get his teammate’s attention on something else. The next ball is initiated and the ball is good and the cross is good but the player doesn’t finish. That player also whispers a string of curses to himself. The following ball is too deep again.
“I said we need playable balls. On the line again.”
The team runs a suicide and waits for instruction like abused dogs.
They run again, and again they wait. Every member off the team is furious at this point. Some of them at themselves, others at those who made errors, others still, at Phil.
The boys gratefully take their 30 second break and are back on the field after ready to play again.
“7 on 7. Losers run.”
Phil divides them up and sends in a ball. The boys scramble for it, they play aggressive and dirty. They’re desperate to not have to run more. The boy gets the ball and perfectly executes a one two into space. Phil watches. Phil always watches. Phil doesn’t give praise, and only rarely advice, just criticism. So he says nothing. The boy sends a through-ball to his teammate, but it’s just a little wide and his teammate doesn’t make a good first touch.
“Make a better pass.”
He quickly nods his head and keeps playing through the drill. The other team steals the ball and makes a perfect cross from the wing to an open man in front of the goal. Of course they score. Despair wipes through the team like a tsunami suffocating the land.
“You’re f***ing retards.”
The boy and his team were already frustrated they had left a man wide open. They are caught in Phils riptide, swept off of their feet unable to stand or fend for themselves. Now they are all beating themselves, punishing themselves, chastising themselves, destroying themselves mentally.
The play has already resumed and the boy makes a run into space. He receives a ball, but his eyes are hot and his vision is getting blurry. He takes a shot. The ball speeds down towards the goal and dings off of the post in. For the first time this practice he smiles, but the drill doesn’t stop.
The boy he’s guarding has the ball. This boy is one of the starters. The boy tries to contain the starter, to take the ball, but he gets off balance and is beaten to the inside. The starter is already at a full sprint, heading towards the goal. The boy chases after him. His legs are flying trying to catch up. He’s frothing at the mouth. His intensity is at the highest level, sharp, and primal. As he approaches he can see the sweat stains on the starter’s shirt, hear the starter’s even breathing, hear his own, dry, spit filled breathing. He can imagine sliding in and taking the ball, but by the time he gets there the ball is already in the goal.
He mutters to himself a series of incomprehensible, incoherent curses with no meaning. Inside he screams in frustration, humiliation, and despair. The score now reads 2-1, the other team, and remains the same until the drill is over. When they’re done running themselves into the ground, all he remembers is getting beat, missing that pass, and barely scoring a goal. He doesn’t remember his one two and has only glimpses of his other plays.
The rest of practice follows similarly. Good plays, the occasional stellar play and errors in between. The only thoughts flowing through his head are broken and repetitive. Don’t make errors. Phil’s watching. Don’t make errors. F*** that was an AWFUL error!! Don’t make errors. Every play is noted. I’m playing like s***. Yes!!! A good play! Finally!! This play counts especially. Perform under pressure. Don’t f*** up. And I f***ed up. Like usual. Son of a b**** I’m never going to start.
Practice ends and he slowly takes off his gear, a sweaty, heated mess. Some of the boys chatter amongst themselves, many of them starters. The boy, however, doesn’t speak. He rolls over the errors over and over in his head. They all come down to one thing. A lack of focus. He comes to this conclusion and wonders at it. But I thought I was focused. It’s got to be Phil.
He kicks on his slides and stares at the field. This field where everything from anguish to excitement to heartbreak to frustration to joy occurs. He gazes over this field and sees the little brothers and sisters running around and kicking the ball. What strikes him in this moment is one thing. They’re laughing. A little brother in a monster shirt and mini cleats runs up to a ball, takes a swing, misses and lands flat on his back. He rolls around on the springy, green grass and laughs his head off with a high pitched giggle. It jingles through the air like the particles are catching his blissful, joyous mood.
Maybe it’s not Phil. Maybe it’s me. Phil just says things. I’m the guy who lets it get to me and builds on it. Maybe if I just stop caring about Phil. That b*****d. Why do I even play this game anyways? I don’t get to actually play. ‘Cause I love it God damnit. It’s my f***ing game. That’s what I’m going to do. Play my f***ing game. I’m going to play my f***ing game.