Kicking balls since 2013

We celebrated 10 years of our women over 30 recreational soccer club at a picnic this weekend and I gave a little speech…. Ok, it was kind of a long speech. Sharing for my soccer buddies who missed it, and for others who might be inspired to learn to play soccer or start their own soccer club.

It all started back in Spring 2013 at a Dynamo boys U13 end-of-season parents vs kids game. My son had played in the Pittsburgh Dynamo recreation league since he was in U6. Although I didn’t have much in the way of athletic skill, I always enjoyed the end-of-season parents vs. kids games, where the parents always let the kids win. But as my son got older, the kids were increasingly able to win without the parents going easy on them, and I watched as most of the moms stepped back and let the dads compete in the end-of-season game.

At the end of the Spring 2013 parents game I observed that soccer seemed like a fun sport, but it would be a lot more fun if I actually knew how to play. I chatted with some of the other moms on the sidelines and asked them if they would like to learn to play too. Some of them seemed interested. I was an age-level commissioner in the Dynamo rec league, so I reached out to the head rec commissioners and asked if we could have a soccer clinic for moms during the 2013 Fall season. My recollection is that the suggestion was met with some skepticism that anyone would actually show up, and a definite lack of enthusiasm to put effort into organizing it. But I was told that if I was willing to put together a proposal and be the one to organize it, the Dynamo board would consider it. Someone on the board mentioned they had heard of something similar in New Jersey and someone had written a book about it.

I’m not sure they actually expected that I would follow through. I didn’t know much about soccer but I know how to organize things.

And I tracked down the book, “Alive and Kicking: When Soccer Moms Take the Field and Change Their Lives Forever.”  The book told inspiring stories about a group of soccer moms who learned to play soccer and formed a soccer league in Montclaire, New Jersey in the late 1990s. These women approached the director of a for-profit youth soccer camp to organize soccer clinics for them, and their clinics were largely coached by men. In addition, when an indoor soccer dome opened, the soccer moms quickly organized themselves into teams. The teams got very competitive very quickly, encouraged by their male coaches, and also by some very competitive women organizers who started bringing in 20-something au pairs and other younger women to help their teams win. Not too surprisingly, both bodies and feelings were regularly injured, and the group had to split into divisions with different levels of play. I liked the initial idea the New Jersey moms had for soccer clinics, but was hoping for something less competitive, so I decided from the beginning to set a minimum age of 30 to participate and to try to find female coaches.

I drafted a proposal for “Dynamoms,” which I described as having the purpose of providing “opportunities for mothers and other female role models of Dynamo youth players to learn about soccer, improve their skills, and have fun.” I also argued that “besides promoting fitness and fun,” Dynamoms would help mothers become “more comfortable with their soccer skills” and thus “they will be more willing to step in and assist with their kids’ soccer practices as needed, referee games, practice kicking soccer balls with their kids, or even volunteer as coaches.” As Dynamo was struggling to sign up enough middle school girls to field rec teams at the time, I added, “This may also encourage more girls to stick with Dynamo soccer longer. Having more girls playing Dynamo soccer supports the league’s mission, and having more mothers volunteering as coaches benefits the league as a whole.”

I talked to a friend who had coached Dynamo teams and played in an adult soccer league herself. She agreed to lead the Dynamoms clinics and we settled on holding three 90-minute clinics during the Fall season on the Schenley Oval grass at 5:30 pm, which was at the same time the Dynamo U16 rec teams played on the turf. We decided to spend 45 minutes each week on soccer skills and then split into two teams for a scrimmage with a referee. I created a budget and convinced the Dynamo board to let us give it a try if I could find at least 10 women who would pay a $50 registration fee. The board agreed. But then my friend ended up moving to another city that summer and I needed to find other coaches.

I talked to Courtney, who had coached my son’s rec team as a volunteer, and offered to pay her to coach a group of moms. Someone on the board suggested reaching out to Julie, a mom who coached a Dynamo team and had played college soccer. Courtney and Julie agreed to coach. I designed a black t-shirt based on the Dynamo logo with “ms” appended to the end, added Dynamoms to the Dynamo online registration system, and sent an email to all the Dynamo parents. We quickly exceeded the minimum 10 women needed, and in the end I believe about 40 women signed up, far exceeding my expectations.

Our Fall 2013 clinics were a lot of fun. As I recall, we were all terrible soccer players, but the coaches were patient with us and we did at least mostly listen to them and try to do their drills. When we scrimmaged the play stopped frequently because we all had lots of questions we wanted to ask about the rules of soccer. By the end of the three sessions, about half the women who participated had concluded that soccer was not for them, but the other half loved it and wanted to know when our next season would start and “could we do this every week?”

Not wanting to wait six months until April for more soccer, we decided to organize an indoor season that would start in January. I knew nothing about where one could play indoor soccer in Pittsburgh or how to rent a gym, but the enthusiastic soccer moms had suggestions. Kitty suggested renting the gym at the Ellis School, and on Saturday afternoons in January and February we held Dynamoms indoor clinics. Then in April 2014 we had a full 8-week outdoor season. Dynamoms had become a thing.

Along the way we had a minor crisis when members of the Dynamo board, who hadn’t actually expected Dynamoms to take off, started wondering whether Dynamoms actually fit the mission of a youth league and whether we would be covered by Dynamo’s insurance. We resolved the insurance issue and the board agreed to let us continue.

Somewhere along the way I hired Rebecca, one of my PhD students, as a third coach. When Rebecca and Julie moved away in the same summer we searched for coaches again and ended up hiring two younger women with soccer skills. They were good coaches, but some of us were old enough to be their mothers. When they moved on we recruited some of our more skilled players to become coaches.

We also had to find alternate gyms for indoor soccer after Ellis stopped renting their gym. We played for a couple of years in a tiny gym on the top floor of the Beth Shalom synagogue, and then for several years in the gym at the Sterrett middle school. 

Another great thing that happened along the way was pickup soccer. Some of the women started asking about having games before our season started and after it ended. Some wondered whether we might play on a weeknight in addition to Saturday afternoon.  And people other than me started organizing pickup games. Beth took the lead on pickup, finding fields, announcing when the games would be, and making sure we had a bag full of pinnies.

We adopted the Dynamo recreation league rule of not keeping score. As Deanna likes to say, the score is always “rainbows to unicorns.” And Kitty reminds us “The stakes cannot be lower.”

By the time the COVID 19 pandemic started in spring 2020, Dynamoms had been around for over 7 years and had settled into a pattern of 8-week fall and spring seasons on Saturday afternoons, 8-week winter indoor seasons on Sunday afternoons, and Wednesday night or Saturday afternoon pickup games whenever the weather was conducive. We typically had between 20 and 30 women sign up for each season, and a dozen or so would show up for a pickup game.

When schools and workplaces rapidly shutdown in March 2020, we initially discontinued our pickup games. But as we learned more about ways to reduce the risk of COVID transmission, and at the same time became more and more desperate to get out of our houses and interact with other grown women, we developed COVID rules and resumed pickup games. Jynene, who is a nurse, advised us on how we could play soccer safely during a pandemic.  We brought our own light and dark shirts rather than sharing pinnies, we tried to social distance and stay six feet apart from each other, and we all wore masks. As we played pickup soccer through the summer, other women walking by our games asked to join us. Our numbers increased, and we added more games, until we were regularly playing three times per week. And the more we played, the more women asked to join us.

Winter came and we kept playing. Indoor soccer was not going to happen due to COVID so we had to keep playing outdoors. It was cold outside, but we soon realized that if you bundle up with lots of layers to warm up, once you start moving on the soccer field, you can shed your outer layers and most of us were playing comfortably in a single layer shirt, joggers, gloves, and a hat, in below freezing temperature.

The only thing that could stop us was the snow. The first time it snowed during the pandemic, we started emailing each other. What was the field like? Someone went to the oval to take a photo of the snow-covered turf. It didn’t look like we would be able to play. Fortunately, the snow melted quickly and we were soon back to soccer. But then it snowed again. After a couple of small snow storms, someone suggested that snow was nothing that 20 determined women with snow shovels couldn’t handle. So we arrived for our usual pickup game, snow shovels in hand, and shoveled enough of the Schenley Oval turf to have a small game.

It turns out this was a service to other soccer players too, and we noticed other groups using our shoveled area. Some of them sometimes enlarged our field or created a second one nearby. As the snow got deeper we developed some new rules. If the ball hits a snow bank and bounces back into the field, play it. If the ball lands in the snow, whoever retrieves it gets the ball, regardless of which team kicked it out. This led to some friendly races through the snow to get the ball. Snow rules brought a whole new dimension to the game.

One day while shoveling, Kitty remarked that it would be really fun if we could all get together in warmer weather and have a soccer camp. We all agreed and kept shoveling, but I’m not sure any of us except Kitty thought it would actually happen.

In spring 2021 we resumed our Dynamoms clinics, still wearing masks and practicing social distancing. And Kitty brought up the idea of soccer camp again. She had ideas for venues, she was looking at dates. We realized she was serious. Kitty organized an adult women’s soccer camp for us at Raccoon Creek State Park. The cabin rentals were super cheap, but the accommodations were quite rustic, full of spiders and mice. The toilets didn’t flush and the showers didn’t drain. But despite the rustic accommodations, we had a blast.

Soccer camp 1.0 was such a success that Kitty decided not to wait another year and immediately began searching for better accommodations for holding soccer camp 2.0 in the fall. We found wonderful camp facilities at Camp Soles and we’ve been going back there twice per year ever since. We’ll have soccer camp 6.0 in September with lots of soccer joy, camp fires and other camp activities, dance parties, euchre, beer soccer, and more.

And in a case of life imitating art imitating life (or something like that), our second camp shirt was designed by Pati (AKA Professor Haute), who was also a character in a romance novel about a soccer team very similar to Dynamoms that was written by one of our players. The real Pati produced camp shirts that resembled a shirt worn by the fictional Pati in the book.

Now we no longer have to wear masks and practice social distancing, and fingers crossed that doesn’t change. And our clinics have gotten more popular than ever. Last spring 69 people signed up for our soccer clinics, and we are well on our way to those sorts of numbers for our Fall season.

As we’ve grown, we’ve encountered a few growing pains. We used to let men play pickup with us if they asked nicely and agreed to play by our friendly rules. But when too many men showed up for a game, it really changed the character of the game and made people worry about injury. We had a meeting to discuss and we decided to prohibit men on “Women Wednesdays” and allow a limited number of “man spots” on Mondays. Later, we decided to only let women play unless we had a shortage of players, and to strictly enforce the 30+ rule.

When we started 10 years ago, we used the Dynamo youth permit for our clinics, and didn’t worry about clinics for pickup games. But as more groups have started to use the Schenley Oval and the city changed their field use policies, we had to start paying for our own permits and often found we had trouble getting field space if we showed up without a permit. I have learned more than I ever thought I would about getting field permits and I have names and numbers of a whole slew of other field users that I have negotiated with over field space.

Over time, running Dynamoms has become increasingly time consuming and complicated. So earlier this year I asked people to volunteer to be part of a Dynamoms Coordinating Committee (the DCC) to help spread the workload around. I was pleased to get a whole bunch of volunteers, and now we have a committee of 12 of wonderful women sharing the work of running pickups, obtaining permits, maintaining the mailing list, running the registration system, ordering t-shirts, and more. Sometimes having a committee can be a little frustrating because we all have opinions, and we are all very respectful of listening to other peoples’ opinions, so we are sometimes hesitant to do anything until everyone has weighed in. But we’re learning how to work together more efficiently and make decisions and get things done. And if any of you would like to volunteer to take over my job as the Dynamoms Commissioner, please let me know. I’ll keep doing it for a while but would be happy to make plans to turn it over to someone else.

One of the difficult decisions the DCC has struggled with is whether to keep the name Dynamoms or change to something more inclusive, considering that a large number of our players are not actually moms. After much debate, a big survey, and more debate, we were unable to find one name that satisfies everyone, so we decided we would just use two names. Thus, we are now the Pittsburgh Dynamoms Football Club, as well as Pittsburgh DFC. Everyone can choose what they want to call it and which t-shirt they want to wear.

So now, as we enter our 10th year of Dynamoms/DFC soccer, it is hard to believe we have come this far. Who would have thought three clinics for soccer moms who didn’t know how to kick a ball would turn into a football club with over 100 members with well-attended clinics, camps, and pickup games 2 or 3 times per week year round? We’ve inspired some of our members to coach their kids’ teams and some of them to travel to Australia to watch the women’s world cup. Dynamoms has sparked many new friendships, social events, and support for our members when they need it. A large number of our members are professionals in a diverse set of fields. There’s a group who, like me, are professors. There are teachers, doctors, nurses, lawyers, social workers, photographers, bakers, designers, non-profit leaders, romance novelists, small business owners, and stay-at-home moms. It’s been fun to learn about what everyone does when they are not playing soccer, as well as some of the more unique interests people have. Bee keeping. Pet portraits. Sexy bird legs?

I want to close by just remarking on what Dynamoms had meant to me personally. I joined a recreational soccer team in first grade. My lack of athletic skill and a bully on my team insured that my first season was my last. So when I started Dynamoms, I didn’t honestly know if would actually be able to play soccer.

But 10 years later, look at me now. Who would have thought that I would ever own a pair of adult soccer cleats, let alone 5 pairs – like I needed another excuse to buy more shoes! Who would have thought that I would take time off of work and abandon my family for three days to go to soccer camp twice a year?

When we play a soccer game, you can see that some of our players are really good. Some of them played a lot of soccer as kids and in college. Some of them came to soccer later in life but picked it up very quickly, generally because they were experienced in other sports. They run fast, their kicks are accurate, they can readily intercept balls.  And then there are the rest of us.

When I started playing with Dynamoms I had pretty much zero soccer skill. I was worried that everyone would figure this out pretty quickly and then nobody would pass the ball to me. But that didn’t happen. People passed to everyone, including me, and over time, I was able to successfully receive some of the passes that were sent my way. People cheered me on when I ran after a ball that was just out of my reach, and congratulated me when sometimes I actually stopped it before it rolled out of bounds. I’ve learned that when one of the better players has the ball, I can pressure them, and while I can’t usually steal the ball from them, I can slow them down and force a pass. And occasionally when I do steal a ball, it feels really good. I can kick the ball with both my left foot and right foot now, and can competently play both left and right wing and pass the ball to a teammate in the center of the field. I still feel completely awkward playing in the center of the field myself, I can’t boot the ball all that far, and I have trouble running and communicating with my teammates at the same time. I still have a lot to learn, but hopefully I have many years of soccer ahead of me.

I would like to personally thank all of you for being so supportive of me and everyone else who comes out to give soccer a try. I love you all! It’s been a great 10 years and I’m looking forward to many more!