kids

'I was coaching my daughter's soccer team, when two dads verbally abused me.'

The sun is setting as I drive down King George’s Road on Sunday afternoon.

There’s a lot on my mind and I’ll admit, I’ve teared up a few times today because I hate confrontation and the events of this morning have left me feeling unsettled. I keep doubting myself. Did I do the wrong thing? Was this my fault?

But then one sentence – a sentence which was repeated multiple times this morning, directed right at me – keeps circling in my mind: “You better watch what you say to me.”

And I realise something. These words were a threat. They were meant to intimidate. And I realise something else. I didn’t do the wrong thing. Today, two grown men verbally abused me and then they gaslit me to make me doubt myself. To make me think I was in the wrong.

My hands start shaking and now I really am crying. My chest is heaving and my heart is beating and I know that what I’m feeling right now is a delayed reaction of fear.

***

On Sunday morning, I wake up in a wonderful mood. It’s my birthday and I love birthdays. Each year, I still go to bed the night before feeling like a giddy five-year-old who knows she’s about to get the cabbage patch doll she’s dreamed of for months. For me, birthdays will always be magical.

It’s a gorgeous, blue-sky June day. One of the best things about Sydney is that even in the middle of winter, you can still take off your jacket and feel the warmth of the sun. I’m coaching my daughter’s under 9s soccer game. We’re up against a tough team, but I know my girls will try their hardest.

At half time, we’re down by two goals but the kids are still positive as they eat their orange quarters. ‘If they got two goals in one half then that means we could get two goals in the next half,’ one girl points out. I smile. Her attitude is perfect.

During the second half, I notice two men standing a few metres behind our goal. The other team has just picked up a free kick in front of the goal because our goalie ran forward to save the ball and, unfortunately, picked it up outside the box. I head down the sideline where a mother from our team is standing. She points out the two men behind the goal, they’re dads from the opposing team. “They’ve been calling out instructions to our goalie,” she tells me. ‘They shouted at her to pick up the ball, and that’s when she picked it up outside the box. Then they laughed.’

I’m shocked. Who would do something like that at a small child’s soccer game? We also notice that they’re smoking. This isn’t allowed anywhere at the fields. And even if they weren’t speaking to our goalie or smoking, they’re still doing the wrong thing because the rules state that no spectators are allowed to stand behind the goals.

I’m acutely aware of the fact that as the coach, it’s my responsibility to protect my team. To stand up for them. I stride over to them and my voice is raised when I say, ‘Can you stop telling my goalie what to do and also not laugh at her if she makes a mistake? These are young kids, you can’t do this.’

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The two men immediately start yelling at me. How dare I accuse them of anything. How dare I speak to them this way. You don’t know what you’re talking about. We haven’t done anything wrong. One of them advances towards me and that’s when he says it: ‘You better watch what you say to me, you better watch it.’

Watch: If a man lived like a woman for a day. Post continues after video.

Video by Mamamia

I’m completely taken aback by the aggression in their tone, by the way the two of them haven’t even paused to consider that they might be doing the wrong thing, by the way they’ve started yelling and intimidating me.

I hesitate; is there a chance that there was a misunderstanding? That when they called out the instructions to my goalie, they genuinely thought they were doing the right thing, that they were helping her? That their laughter was taking out of context? Yes, this is a possibility, but the way they’re treating me right now paints a different picture.

I stand strong. ‘Either way, you’re not allowed to stand behind the goal. I need you to move somewhere else.’

They refuse. They claim that because they’re a few metres back, they have every right to stay exactly where they are.

I return my attention to the game, reassuring my goalie that she’s doing a fabulous job. The two men stay where they are and speak loudly. I hear comments about how I don’t know what I’m doing, how I’m a bad coach, how I had no right to approach them. I’m ridiculous. I’m a joke. I try to block it all out.

At the end of the game, the opposing coach and I both head out to the middle of the field to remind the girls to shake hands. When the girls have headed to the sideline, I speak to the other coach. I’m calm and I’m polite. Thankfully, so is he.

‘In future, can you please ask your parents not to stand behind the goal?’ I explain exactly what occurred. He concedes that they shouldn’t be standing back there but goes on to excuse it by saying, ‘but lots of people do it.’ I respond that that doesn’t make it okay. Then he adds that he knows these two dads and ‘they’re not the sort of people who would have done anything like that.’ The implication is that I’m mistaken. He doesn’t believe a word I’ve said about the way they behaved. This should have been the end of it, the two of us at an impasse. But that’s when the two dads come storming across the field towards us.

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They’re pointing at me and yelling at me. Repeating the same things they shouted earlier. How dare I speak to them that way. They didn’t do anything wrong. And once again, the spine-tingling threat: You need to watch the way you speak to us. You need to watch yourself.

I try to respond, ‘If you weren’t doing anything wrong, then why not explain it to me?’

‘You didn’t give us the chance!’ they cry. ‘You were abusing us, you abused us and you had no right.’

It’s at this point that I need to ask a question of women everywhere. How many times has a man accused you of being hysterical simply because you raised your voice? How many times has a man told you that you were overreacting? That you needed to calm down; and it’s completely thrown you because all you can think is: What on earth do they mean? I am calm.

And this is the crux of the situation. This is the point where the gaslighting began. My initial reaction was shock. How could they possibly accuse me of abusing them? I’m replaying the exact words I said to them. I’m examining my tone of voice, the volume. Was I too loud? Too curt? Is there any possible chance that the way I spoke to them could be constituted as abuse? I’m sure that there isn’t. I did the right thing. But then … at the same time, a voice in the back of my head starts to question my actions. These men have made me doubt myself. They’ve torn down my confidence. And I’m asking myself, Is all of this my fault?

Throughout the rest of the day I’m doubting everything. The way I handled the situation. My ability as a coach. I’m already thinking that I don’t want to volunteer to coach again next year. That I’m not up to the job. That I can’t cope. That I caused a scene. When I relay the story to others, I’m already putting in caveats: Look, maybe I misunderstood them. Maybe their laughter was unrelated. Maybe they were actually trying to help out my goalie. Maybe I misjudged them.

Maybe this was my fault. Maybe this was my fault. Maybe this was my fault.

The thing is though, it bloody well wasn’t. And I hate that it took me until that evening on a long drive to work it out. To stop blaming myself. Because, in all honesty, what should I have done differently? Should I have sidled over to them, all meek and polite? The nervous, inferior woman, come to ask them a big favour? ‘Excuse me gents, so sorry to interrupt you. I’m sure you’re fine upstanding gentlemen and this is simply a misunderstanding but I just have to check…’

Can you imagine a male coach behaving this way? Being careful not to hurt anyone’s feelings? I can’t. In fact, I think any coach, male or female, would have done what I did. And while I know I can’t prove this, I suspect the situation might have played out differently had it been a man approaching them rather than a woman. Because I believe these men looked at me as someone they could intimidate. Someone they could control. And that right there, is the definition of toxic masculinity.

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Nicola Moriaty is an author who has a new book out called ‘The Ex’. It’s available now for $24.50 on Booktopia.

Nicola Moriarty
Nicola Moriarty has a new book 'The Ex' out. Image: Supplied.

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