A couple of weeks ago, the little guy had his first real soccer scrimmage. I wasn’t sure what to expect. He doesn’t yet have a great interest in any particular sport and is at an age where explaining rules and objectives is probably pretty boring for him.
When he got on the field and that lack of grasping the overall concept was apparent, I was overcome with a very foreign feeling. I’m ashamed to admit this, but I suddenly understood why my parents were constantly screaming at me to keep my head in the game and pay attention. It was alarming how natural the will to do something like that felt. So Mom, Dad, I get it. I totally get it.
Of course, I also remembered that had never really helped me. My mind just wasn’t dialed in at that age, and I wasn’t very aggressive. Plus, the one time I got a breakaway on goal, my own teammate knocked me over to take the shot. It was “Lord of the Flies” on grass behind an elementary school.
So, instead of shouting, I cupped my thumb and index finger around my jaw as if in serious contemplation. The kid did fine. As any parent of a child playing soccer knows, for kids 6 and under, the game is essentially ping-ponging the ball off of other kids’ shins in the hope that it eventually deflects toward the right goal.
There are the kids who are way ahead of everyone else. They have strong physical coordination, and they understand competition and the basic aspects of the game. But even they have to get fairly lucky when every player on the field is bunched into a 2-square-foot area around the ball and flailing their legs.
When the scrimmage was over, that earlier feeling had evaporated.
Then it was time for his first real game. I told myself to relax. Sports, especially at his age, are about learning the game and learning to participate and socialize with others. I did worry about my earlier reflexes, especially since I was around far more parents this time.
But it turns out sports parenting has changed a lot since I was that age. These people were practically oozing optimism and praise for every single kid out there, and it created a really wonderful vibe. Yeah, they shouted for their kid to turn around, to move forward, to get the ball. But it was joyous and even humorous. I guess I just grew up in a different time. Or maybe it was always like what happened at my son’s first game and I just read it wrong when I was that age. Memory and context can be tricky things.
When my son went in, I actually felt really, really proud (which beats the hell out of angry or frustrated any day). And yes, I did have to raise my voice to let him know to turn around when the ball was coming in, but there was no judgment or disappointment. It was just information. Hey man, ball’s in, you might want to watch it and track where it goes. Maybe kick it, if the opportunity arises.
He was on the field when his team scored one of its goals, didn’t use his hands and he never came close to putting one in his own net. As far as I’m concerned, that’s as glorious a youth soccer debut as any kid can have.
I realize these things will likely grow more serious and intense as he gets older. I’ll have to work on how I handle it as much as working on the actual points of whatever sport he’s playing. He’s wanted to kick the ball around a lot more lately, and I think that’s a good sign.
One thing I definitely grew to realize, and agree with my parents on, is that sports provide vital structure, accountability, social interaction and exercise for kids. There are other activities that provide this later in life, but I think it’s crucial for kids to engage in some form of organized sport. Maybe he’ll love it. Maybe he’ll be good at something. Maybe he’ll hate it, and he’ll let me know. I’ll still be proud. And now I know, one day, he’ll get it, too.