I’ve learned a lot about myself during my daughter Allison’s first foray into organized athletics.
I’ve always pledged to myself that I’d never be one of those parents, the ones who yell too much or get too involved in how their child is performing on the field.
Allison played in the under-5-year-old league of the Sanford Area Soccer League this spring, and she loved a lot of it. There were times she wasn’t exactly thrilled about getting up in the morning to go to a game, and there were certainly times when she appeared timid and a little overwhelmed by the whole thing.
But she smiled a lot this spring, during practice, which was her favorite part, and then after the games. She struggled with the notion that she wasn’t the best player on her team, but actually, that’s probably a pretty good lesson for her.
It was also a good lesson for me. I did find myself hollering encouragement to her, but I did also find myself a bit miffed when she didn’t do as well as I knew she could do at times. (“Don’t just stand there, Allison. Go get the ball! Kick it!”)
Still, I could feel myself restrain myself. And I take comfort in how she reacted after practices and games, when a slight sense of pride would fill her when describing some of the events to younger friends of hers, friends not quite old enough yet to be playing soccer.
I’m thrilled she played. And I’m thrilled I didn’t cross the line, though I can see how someone might approach it. But her smiles and joy of just playing, of just being a part of a team, were more than enough.
The goal she scored on Saturday was just icing on the cake.
Here’s the column:
The Goal of Youth Sports
She goes out there, and looks as though she is less than an hour removed from the warmth of her bed.
The sun is still far from reaching its afternoon apex, but it provides just enough comfort against the morning breezes that sweep across the fields.
Kids are everywhere. Everywhere. Yet she seems somehow oblivious to many of them. Her eyes stare far off into the distance, seemingly past the action in front of her. It’s controlled chaos between some of the white lines. But that’s how it’s supposed to be.
She rather not get too mixed up into the scrum. She’s small, maybe the smallest one in a uniform and shin guards in the entire complex. She may not know that, but she can sense it.
You see it when she plays in the under-5 league. There are no goalkeepers and the score isn’t kept. This is fun. For many kids, like her, this is the first step in participating in organized athletics. The first time listening to a coach. The first time, outside of a preschool atmosphere or daycare, interacting with other children toward a common goal.
Ah, the goal.
She knows which way to go, which way her team needs to move the ball down the field and which goal to shoot toward. She knows that going the other way aids the other team, that their goal is on the other side of the field and that they are trying to score, too.
The action seems to move much faster out here than it does in the front yard at home. And certainly there are more of them. So when the throng comes toward her, she sometimes freezes, unsure of herself. When the throng is away from her, she runs toward it, tries to mingle into it, but sometimes, by the time she gets close, the ball is going in another direction.
She’s cute, though. Way cute. The tiny shin guards that would work well as a wrist brace for an adult. The high socks. The black and white ribbon with little soccer balls on it that ties her long blonde hair into a ponytail.
The pink cleats.
Some of it is hard. She can tell when the other team is having a good day, when they’ve scored more than her team. But when one of her teammates boots one in, she throws her hands into the air and jumps ever so slightly, the hair bouncing and the smile emerging.
And she has her moments. The ball comes toward her, and before the scrum gets there, she redirects it just enough. The ball dices through the web of legs and feet and finds a teammate, who fires into the back of the net.
She has no idea what she has done, or that she had anything to do really with the score. She just kicks it. Dad says it goes down as an assist.
But the season progresses and she’s missing one thing. Not the smiles and not the laughs and not the gentle boasting she tells her younger friends. Those are all there, and Mom and Dad can feel good about that. She likes practice the best, and though the games can wear on her a little, she opens up about them as the day goes on, and is eager to hit the front yard by the time she gets home.
In the front yard, though, she scores. Often.
In the games, she doesn’t. She hasn’t. Not once. And the word “can’t” begins to crease her lips. And that’s where a parent’s heart can begin to hurt.
There is one last game, though. She doesn’t talk about it. She just goes out and does the best she can. She’s a little timid at first, like usual, but she’s waking up. She’s not crying and running to her mother’s arms. She’s playing. What more can you ask?
And besides, look how cute she is.
The game moves along. She kicks the ball away from the other team’s net, saving a goal. She mixes in with the crowd as it comes toward her, scoots another one loose, and it goes for a score off the foot of a teammate. These are her highlights, the ones her mom and dad will talk about in the car on the ride home.
She starts the fourth quarter, the final eight minutes of the season. She trots out there, her little gait sashaying her ponytail from side to side.
Soon, her team has a goal kick. A teammate puts the ball in front of the other team’s goal as the opposing players move back, readying for the ball to be put into play. She lines up near midfield, just beyond the center line, on the right side.
The ball comes toward her. The other team’s players are on the other side. She’s all alone. She corrals it, dribbles it like she was taught.
She dribbles again. And then again once more. The kids are closing, the scrum in its infant stages of forming, but she’s ahead of it.
She gives it one more kick and the ball rolls. This is her chance. Her shot. She slows and watches.
The ball rolls. It could miss the right post. It could be wide. It really could.
Or it could hit the post, and the scrum would be there.
Or it could slip just inside the post and settle softly in the net. And her parents could erupt. And her teammates could run to her. And her coach could give her a high-five. And the parents of her teammates could congratulate her after the game.
And she could smile.
And isn’t that the point? Not the score, or the team’s record, or the stats.
Isn’t that the idea? Isn’t that the goal?
Oh, it’s the goal all right.