Fall has both officially and seasonally arrived here in the North East, marked by crisp but sunny days and sweater-worthy nights. In my house fall also means outdoor weekend adventures, the occasional homemade soup and pajamas before 7 pm. For other parents in my town, however, fall is soccer season, a period of several months where their kids are bending it like Beckham three times a week, rain or shine.
Like many towns across the country, soccer is practically a religion where I live, practiced with a devotion that would put some monks to shame. Birthday parties are arranged around games, cliques are formed among teammates and more than a few parents I know have spent too many Memorial and Labor Days out of town, not at seaside havens, but in post-heyday towns like Poughkeepsie, NY or Allentown, PA, rooting for their children’s travel teams. I’d be lying if I told you I simply chose not to participate in this community cult. In fact, I’m a little envious of the bonds that are formed on the sidelines among parents who share the triumphs and disappointments of their brethren’s athleticism. It’s just that we tried our hand at soccer last spring and it didn’t go too well.
It was late March and I don’t’ know who was more excited about JP’s eligibility to join the town’s soccer league, which starts in the spring of the year you begin Kindergarten. Sure, JP was looking forward to that first Saturday afternoon but in the way a 4-year old looks forward to something that doesn’t involve sugar, with anticipation but nothing on par with say, a birthday party. My husband Jim on the other hand was beyond himself, buying my son cleats and shin guards while simultaneously shifting through his collection of FIFA jerseys to pick which country he would represent for his first official day as a Soccer Dad.
Photo by the bbp via Flickr
When we arrived on the field that first morning, excited to start the new phase of our life where our cheers for JP’s efforts would move beyond our four walls, it was a little intimidating. First off, when we went in search of JP’s team I didn’t think I’d need any more information than his name and grade, for how many teams of Kindergarten boys could there actually be, right? Well, the answer is 10. There were another 10 teams of girls. Uh oh, I thought. This might be a little more intense than I thought. My fears eased a bit when I finally tracked down and met JP’s coaches, two really nice men whose own boys were wearing the same orange shirt as my son. We each gave JP a high-five, stepped off to the side and watched our son eagerly run out on the field. Almost immediately the Dad-coaches began running drills and JP was having a blast kicking the ball, even if he wasn’t navigating the twists and turns of the orange cones perfectly. When 20 minutes later the kids were broken up into two teams for a scrimmage I was a little confused. Wait, a game? But these kids only learned the basic principles of the sport 20 minutes ago, I reasoned. How could they be expected to play? The answer was immediately evident.
These kids were no rookies. From the way they were manipulating the ball and weaving around other players it was obvious these boys had done this dance before. I looked over towards my son as he stood perfectly still in the middle of the field, oblivious to the disruption he was causing to the game. His head was down and he had his arms crossed around his chest, a gesture I know from experience is part-disappointment, part-I-am-not-moving-from-this-spot-unless-you-physically-drag-me. Jim ran out and asked him what was wrong and when JP told him that he didn’t know how to do what the other kids were doing, my husband assured him that this was how you learned the game and really, the main goal was just to have fun, even if all that meant was running up and down the field. Jim’s pep talk seemed to work and JP got back in the game. He was doing well, following the pack of boys who controlled the ball while parents cheered from afar (most encouragingly, others with an aggressiveness I found scary), until another boy scored a goal. Instead of celebrating his teammate’s success, my son took to the ground with all four appendages splayed out in a dramatic protest against what he thought was the unfairness of not being born knowing how to play soccer. I felt really bad for that boy, the one who scored the goal. I mean imagine, you’re four-years old, you score your first goal and this minor success is deemed so undeserving that a complete stranger falls to the floor?? I knew whom his parents would be talking about on the car ride home.
This time Jim froze a little, hesitant to interfere but when the well-meaning coaches couldn’t pry my little thespian from his spot, he was forced to remove him to the sidelines. The ensuing conversation was more sincere than his previous actions and it was obvious JP’s confidence was shaken. He didn’t know how to play, he said, and all the other boys did. Why were all the other Dads telling them to take the ball? That wasn’t nice, he reasoned. Then it occurred to us that JP not only didn’t know the rules of soccer, he didn’t know the concept of competitive sports! And who could blame him really. With the exception of the World Cup and the odd tennis tournament, our family doesn't follow professional sports and unlike many of the other kids on his team, JP didn’t have an older brother to play with in our yard. And up until that point, we were trying to instill the concept that play was cooperative, involved taking turns and certainly not competitive.
With no words spoken, Jim and I knew we had failed to prepare our son for his first day of soccer. Sure there were other kids on the field that day who had never played a day of soccer but still managed to have fun, who didn’t care whether or not they scored a goal. But that wasn’t our son and it surprised us both that we didn’t anticipate something similar to our current situation. After all, this is a child who wouldn’t pick up a crayon because earlier attempts create his masterpiece has failed to meet his perfectionist standards. My child is the kid who defines success by doing it right the first time.
The game ended a few minutes later and we headed home. That day and the entire next week we talked to JP about all the pros of soccer, how his only job was to listen to the coach and have fun, how no one was keeping score of how many goals he made. Plus, Jim and I decided, it was important that JP fulfill his commitment to his teammates, to understand that when he starts something, he must finish it, no matter how hard it is.
We brought him back for several more weeks and the same scenario played out each time. When by week five I found myself dragging JP across a crowded park in the freezing cold, his eyes the size of saucers at the very idea he would have to face this torture again, I had a change of heart. My gut told me it wasn’t worth it, that the only lesson my son was learning was that his feelings didn’t matter to me, that his misery did not break my heart, as it, in reality, does. I decided he had a few more years before he had to learn that lesson.
It wasn’t an easy decision. Jim, I knew, was secretly heart-broken, saddened that his only son didn’t share the same enthusiasm he did for the only sport he follows. And I questioned if I had done the right thing. But when I started sharing my story with other Moms and Dads, I was surprised by how many people had a similar experience and decided to wait another year before putting their children into competitive sports. And surprisingly, how many current day soccer super stars were once 4-year old daisy pickers, completely uninterested in the game. I realized that not all hope was lost.
So this fall, as many of his classmates and friends are spending their weekends having a great time kicking around a ball or making the odd goal, my son is at home with Jim and I. He takes tennis and Tae Kwon Do during the week but the weekends are ours for now.
Until next spring, when we will try out soccer just one more time.
Ellen Askin Bailey is a freelance writer, mother of one and secretly glad she isn’t a Soccer Mom. Yet.
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