A Less-Than-Proud Moment And A Very Proud Moment, Courtesy of Youth Soccer

Soccer Saturday is, by far, my favorite day of the week. It’s not really even close.

My work schedule is such that I’m normally traveling out on Monday morning, working 16 hour days Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and then flying home, dead tired, on Friday afternoon. Sunday is the day that I steel myself to do it all again. But Saturday? Saturday is the day where I either freeze in the cold, stand in the pouring rain, or endure third-degree sunburns to watch my son play soccer. Despite the always awful conditions, and the assault on my seasonal allergies, there’s nowhere I’d rather be than watching him play.

I’m a Soccer Dad, no doubt. I cheer loudly. I coach way too much from the sidelines. I pace and pace up and down the sideline during the games—I stopped bringing a chair years ago. I live and die with each play. My FitBit tells me that my heart rate more than doubles during the games. I know that my son cares immensely about winning and losing, and I know his day—no, his week is ruined if he doesn’t win.

This past weekend was almost like getting two-for-one, because we had a tournament! Over 150 top teams from Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia, and Tennessee all came together in Georgetown, Kentucky, for the Stride tournament on Saturday and Sunday, and my son’s FC Kentucky Boys U9 squad was among them.

U9 is a little bit of a mix between kids who have been playing since they were 3 or 4 years old and live and breathe soccer (ex., my son, Kevin), and some kids who are still figuring out if this is something they want to do. Each kid is required to play a certain amount in each game, regardless if he’s a top player or not. U10 is where it gets super-duper serious, with more kids getting cut than making the squad, more intense travel, and no rules about the amount of playing time required.

But that doesn’t mean that U9 isn’t serious.

Far from it. The top teams are very, very skilled, and the level of play is astonishingly good. There’s a bit of a disconnect between what you see with the kids on the field and off. On the field, they’re serious about the game. They push and shove and throw elbows. They execute set pieces perfectly. They pivot like ballerinas on one foot and strike the ball into the upper corner of the net, only to have diving goalkeepers tip their attempts just wide. When a teammate fails to do his job properly, they turn on him quickly. And when a hard-earned goal is scored, they celebrate like the Premier League players they see on television.

And then you see them walk off the field, with equipment bags that are bigger than they are, calling out to Mommy and Daddy, and you realize that not are they just kids, they’re little kids. They crowd around iPads and giggle at silly cat videos. They’re not opposed to drinking a juice box. But no matter—this isn’t rec league, co-ed, nobody-keeps-score soccer. These kids care about winning, and they fight like hell until the final whistle blows.

My son’s team is no exception. They’ve got defined roles, and they know how to execute them. My son has been his team’s center midfielder all season long. It’s like being the quarterback of a football team, except with about four to five miles of running each game. He’s required to play offense and defense, and he touches the ball more than anybody. He’s responsible for setting up goal scoring opportunities as well as clearing the ball out of his half. It’s a hell of a responsibility, and it’s one he was drafted into unwillingly.

You see, he’d much rather be a goalkeeper. He’s got multiple goalkeeping shirts, multiple pairs of gloves, and absolutely no fear. He’s been playing goalkeeper since he was six, and he’s passionate about it to the point of excess. But more on that in a minute.

In U9, they play seven-on-seven. They’ve got a wonderful center striker, a young man whose speed is transcendent. He can run on to any ball Kevin puts forward and bury it in the back of the net. They’ve got a strong right wing who can cross the ball into the box from most angles. And they have a very, very young left wing, who, at the age of six, can fight with the best of them for the ball and has a surprisingly powerful left foot.

But on defense? Man, they’re bad. If they can’t outscore the other team, they lose. And those are with the two kids who actually try—one of them is a good player but he’d rather be on offense, so he’s prone to overdribbling, and the other is a kid who just doesn’t have much skill but tries his butt off, and I respect that.

Then there’s the one kid who just doesn’t want to be out there. You can see it, not only by the way he plays but by his defeated body language. He’s afraid of the ball, and any time a play comes to his side of the field, it’s a guaranteed goal for the other team. He turns his back, sticks his leg out, and hopes that he doesn’t get hurt.

And I admit, this bothers me. Not because I care so much about whether or not they win or lose, but because I know the other kids on the field are trying as hard as they possibly can, and this one kid sinks their efforts every single time. If he were doing his best and he actually cared, I wouldn’t care at all, and I don’t think the kids would, either. But they know he doesn’t want to be out there, and they let him know that they don’t appreciate his lack of effort with their words.

The final straw for me this weekend was when they came out after halftime for the second half of play, down 3-2 (thanks to this kid opting out of trying to stop the other team), and he went out to the wrong side of the field. I shouldn’t have said anything, but I called out to him, in the friendliest voice possible, “Hey, buddy—we switched sides!”

Five seconds later, here comes Mom in her fake Tory Burch boots and ridiculously contoured puffy coat. We’re at a soccer game, not a polo match in NorCal. But I digress.

“Um, I don’t mind what you say to Kevin, but would you mind not saying anything to (her son)? He’s already feeling pretty down about himself.”

My first internal reaction was to think, your husband sent you down here to talk to me? Really? Okay. Fine. Second thought? Your kid needs to toughen up, lady, if being told he’s on the wrong side of the field hurts his feelings.

But my final, and probably correct thought was to say, “Ok.” Which I did. Because she was right. It doesn’t matter. I’m a grown man, I’m not the coach, and it’s not my place to criticize children on a soccer field. And I thought to myself, maybe it doesn’t look like he cares to me, but maybe his mom is making him be out there, and maybe he doesn’t want to be, and he knows he’s not any good at this soccer thing. So maybe his defense mechanism is to act like he doesn’t care very much, and maybe he actually cares a great deal.

So I kept my mouth shut every time he turned his back on the ball and stuck his leg out. I cheered him every time he did something even mildly positive. And in the third game of the tournament, after the kids fought back from a 5-2 deficit to tie the game at 5-5, he did it again—turning his back and sticking his leg out, and the other team raced past him and scored an easy goal. Whistle. Game over, 6-5 loss.

I watched him after the game. His mom, strident in her defense earlier, couldn’t seem to be bothered to look up from her phone to even address him as he walked off the field. They wordlessly made their way to their Tahoe, where he ate snacks on from a cooler in the cargo area with the liftgate raised while she continued to type away on her phone, her eyes hidden behind her designer sunglasses. We still had another game to play, but she made it obvious that she’d rather be anywhere else but there.

I felt an overwhelming sense of shame that I’d ever said anything less than encouraging to this child. I realized that the reason the husband hadn’t come down to speak to me was because he wasn’t there, and the mom was barely there at all. And while some sort of Cosmo-related pride had made her stick up for her son in public, in private, he didn’t exist to her.

As the team warmed up for the fourth game, the talented right wing’s father approached me. He owns the Mexican restaurant in our little town, and is always wearing the restaurant’s logo somewhere on his clothing. “Amigo!” he sang out in his charming latin accent. “You have such passion! You should be coaching! You are inspiring them to play better.”

I laughed a little, and replied,”Not everybody thinks so. I have to remind myself that I’m not the coach.”

He got very serious. “You want them to play better. So do I. So does everybody. This passion, it’s good for them to hear it from you.”

Maybe he’s right. Maybe I just need to find that right balance of encouragement. I won’t be responsible for a 9 year old kid feeling bad about himself. That’s not okay.

After the final game of the tournament, I watched my son walk off the field. He scored in each game, and set up some amazing goals for his teammates. Without question, he was the MVP. But he was upset, because they hadn’t won. And I already knew what he was thinking before he even opened his mouth.

“Dad, I could have stopped those goals they scored.” He wasn’t bragging. He wasn’t complaining. He was just stating, matter-of-factly, that he could have helped his team win the tournament if he had played goalkeeper.

I debated and debated as the coaches gave the team a postgame talk. I genuinely like the coaches—they’re a son-father, Gen X-Baby Boomer tandem who are in it for all the right reasons. They love the kids, but they’re sufficiently tough on them. They congratulate the other team when they play well. They have helped my son grow immensely in the past season. I never want to be that Dad. You know, the one who questions the coaches’ decisions.

So I just asked the senior member of the coaching team.

“Coach,” I started, already feeling apologetic. “I really don’t want to be that dad. Really, I don’t. But have you considered putting #5 in the goal?”

He smiled at me, with a kind look I’d never seen him give the kids. I realized suddenly that he was my father’s age, out coaching my son. I immediately felt stupid for even asking.

“Kevin is the ideal center mid. He’s not the biggest, or the strongest, or the fastest, mind you. But he’s so smart. He thinks with the ball. He always makes the right decisions out there—he might not be physically able to do what he’s trying to do, but he’s thinking years beyond his age.

“He’s much better at mid then he is in the goal. The strength and speed, that will come. He’s got gifts you can’t teach. He’s a good, smart, talented kid.”

Well. I couldn’t have been any prouder at that moment. “Yes, sir. If midfield is where you need him, then I won’t say another word. Thanks so much for all you are doing, coaching these kids. I appreciate it.”

As we walked away, my hand on my son’s head, rustling his hair, my little #5, wearing that number because his father wore it, who wore it because his father wore it, looked at me.

“Dad, you know…I don’t mind not playing goalie. Not on this team, anyway. They need me in the middle.”

I smiled back at him. “That’s what being on a team is all about, buddy. Doing what’s best for the greater good.”

I guess we both learned some lessons this weekend. I need to lighten up, take it a little less seriously, and make sure that if I’m saying anything at all that it’s encouraging. But I also need to keep up whatever it is I’m doing that helped my son become such a good kid.

38 Replies to “A Less-Than-Proud Moment And A Very Proud Moment, Courtesy of Youth Soccer”

  1. VoGo

    For all our well documented differences, Bark, I read this with a strong sense of camaraderie. I definitely get WAY too into my kids games. To the extent that my middle child has banned me from watching her games.

    It’s tough to strike a balance – especially at this age – between teaching them to be competitive and letting them still be kids. You’re doing fine. It’s the parents who don’t second guess themselves that I worry about.

    Reply
  2. jz78817

    welp, now we know where the people who are happy with mediocrity come from. Disinterested parent making them do an activity they don’t really want to do, which means they only try just hard enough to not get kicked off the team.

    unfortunately I wanted to play hockey when I was younger, but not only did I not get on a pair of skates until late (I think I was 11) we just couldn’t afford that.

    now that I have the time and money, I’m finding ways to do more and more of the stuff I wanted to years ago. I finally got on a motorcycle starting a couple of years ago, last year I took a stock car around MIS, and a couple weekends ago I spent a few days in Dayton driving a 5 liter hydroplane.

    Reply
  3. ComfortablyNumb

    My heart goes out to this defenseman. Anecdotally, it seems he’s not very talented and gets little support from his teammates or his family. He’s heard over and over again what a screwup he is. Is it any wonder that he doesn’t have the willpower to put forth a good effort? You and Kevin wake up amped for Saturday soccer, and that’s excellent. This kid wakes up dreading it. The only sure thing for him that day is that he’s going to fail.

    My experience with youth sports is that 9-years-old is about the age when the kids who don’t want to be there start dropping out and trying other activities. Kevin and his teammates shouldn’t have to worry about kids like this much longer. In the meantime, some nice words and encouragement from the star midfielder will stay with him for his entire life. Good kid that Kevin clearly is, I’m sure he already does this. But I doubt he appreciates just how significant it is. Hopefully Kevin’s example will cause his teammates to give this kid some support as well. Unfortunately, encouragement from the coaches and spectators doesn’t really mean much to a kid who, much too early in life, became jaded and knows that adults encourage everyone, regardless of whether or not he sucks. The team seems to understand that winning is what it’s all about, but they also need to know that a tournament victory means f#ck all if one of your teammates hangs himself in his closet a few years down the road.

    Reply
    • jz78817

      “My experience with youth sports is that 9-years-old is about the age when the kids who don’t want to be there start dropping out and trying other activities”

      I think too many parents get wrapped up in forcing their kids into activities because either they think it’s something kids are just “supposed to do” or because it’s something they want their kids to do. at no point does “caring about what your kid wants to do and/or is good at” enter their minds.

      Reply
      • Bark M Post author

        That’s a tough balance to strike. You do have to force your kids into activities at some point—what 4-year-old even knows what soccer is? It’s up to the parent to expose his child to an activity, but it’s up to the child if he wants to continue it (at some point).

        Reply
        • Kevin M.

          Being a new father myself this post couldn’t be any better timed… Was just talking about when it is okay to “force” or “push” your kids in sport / etc with some co-workers. I was lucky enough to have a father that struck a great balance – pushed me to try – was patient if I had some bumps along the way – but ultimately let it go if I just wasn’t interested. For the few things I was naturally talented at I definitely got a lot more push. Both of my parents fully grasped that children don’t often see the benefit of hard work until they come out on the other side of it and reap the rewards.

          Great read Bark, love the blog more and more every time I visit.

          Reply
      • pdq

        From your mouth to God’s ears. My father used to drag me out to the driveway to practice basketball or out to the street to throw a softball. Both were sports he excelled at – but I sucked at both and hated both. I couldn’t dribble without looking AT the ball and I apparently threw like a girl. But I’m ambidextrous, so dad was determined to make me into his mini-me. It never happened.

        I loved cars. I was washing cars for the neighbors and making money, along with having a paper route. To dad, cars were a tool he used as a salesman (40,000 miles/yr). The only thing he wanted to do with a car on the weekend was drive it to the country club. I actually enjoyed playing golf with the old man. I wasn’t good at it, but I enjoyed spending time with him that didn’t involve him yelling at me. The golf course was not a place where you yelled. Decorum was very important.

        Reply
  4. Will

    You should have your son talk to the kid who doesn’t want to necessarily be out there; it’d teach him leadership and you can give him advice on how to do it. The kid might take to it, possibly invite him over for practice. Leadership starts young and knowing how to say something is crucial.

    Reply
    • jz78817

      or maybe let the kid find out what he does want to do. you can’t force someone to enjoy something.

      Reply
    • Bark M Post author

      Kevin says he’s a nice kid. I have talked to him a bit about his role as team captain (which he is), and that he should be a “coach on the field” for the newer/less experienced kids. I think it’s something he’s growing into.

      Reply
      • Will

        For sure. But getting others motivated to do things they may not want to do is crucial in any leadership role; it’s why people play for Dabo Sweeney and not really for Lane Kiffin when things are down.

        Valuable lessons are learned at young ages and if you’re doing that that’s awesome. The kid that “doesn’t want to be there” maybe just needs different motivation and praise or acceptance from peers can do that. Then again, maybe not. It’s a lesson worth trying and not taught enough. Part of it is persistence; I think kids respond the most to that and knowing someone won’t give up on them.

        Reply
  5. VTNoah

    Great story Bark. I’m reading this as my 3 and a half year old twins are going to their first “Soccer Practice” ever today. I can relate to the kid who’s parents weren’t involved and will say that the encouragement you or your son provide him will stick with him for an eternity. If it wasn’t for some really great coaches and friends, I would have ended up in a much different place than I am now.

    Reply
  6. Orenwolf

    Wow, if you rip all the “She’s a bad parent because she dresses badly and clearly *looks* worthless to me” out of the story, and instead focus on your narrative that she didn’t want *you* talking to her son, but didn’t seem to give a shit about him afterwards, either, then I think this would have gone from being a *good* story, to a *great* one.

    I do think, however, that you are forgetting what kids are like to each other, though. Do all these kids attend the same school? If so, then I *guarantee* you the kid you’ve described would be chastized by his teammates, *regardless* of whether or not he was trying. I know because I’ve been there. I used to suck at ball hockey (hey, Canada) despite *really really* wanting to be better at it. Kids didn’t care, they hated having me on their team, and I *hated* being there. I probably looked a lot like that kid did, mainly because I hated that I couldn’t do better and I *knew* I was going to catch hell for it from my peer group.

    I have to wonder, though – this U9 thing – is that a ranking or just an age designation? Because your story makes me wonder when the idea of having a skills-based league system fell apart. Are there just not enough players or fields to allow the “good” players to move up the ranks into teams that can allow the kids who either don’t want to be there, or just aren’t adept at soccer, to continue to play, while allowing the kids who *are* good to advance?

    I mean, that system more-or-less exists in concrete or abstract form in most of society already. I get that they’re kids and if you gamify the league too much all that will matter to some of them is advancing rather than enjoying the game but at the same time, it seems that natural aptitude + effort should result in some sort of filtering process, no?

    Reply
    • Bark M Post author

      Good question.
      This is already supposed to be the top level, as it’s a “select” club team. U9 soccer is open to all kids born in 2008 and later. There are two U9 feeder squads in my son’s club that are designed to prepare kids for U10—Blue and White. The Blue team is for all kids born in 2008 and talented younger kids (this is Kevin’s fourth season on the Blue team), and the White team is for all other kids born in 2009 and younger. They sort it this way because the 2008 kids will move up to U10 in the fall, so they want them to play together. U9 is technically an “academy” age group, so kids aren’t supposed to be cut from the program—hence the two teams.

      Unfortunately, this kid was born in ’08. There’s only one U10 team, and unless he improves drastically over the summer (which can and does happen sometimes), there’s no way he’ll make the U10 team, so I feel like all mom is doing here is setting him up for MORE disappointment.

      Reply
  7. Yamahog

    I don’t know the kid but I empathize with him all the same.

    My mom really, really wanted me to play sports (dad functionally was out of the picture) and I did so begrudgingly. My mom is also relatively status obsessed so there’s probably something at play there. But I never practiced, I never wanted to be good, I just wanted sports to be over and I wanted to play as little as possible.

    The fallacy of ‘leadership’ as has been defined in this comment thread is that it’s a leader of sovereign individuals. This kid probably isn’t free to do as he pleases, he has a Sovereign (his mother) telling him what to do. Leadership that tries to inspire him might work, but I wouldn’t count on it. Leadership that forces him to do something probably will ‘work’ to the extent the leader can bind the child to their will. A wise leader might find an accommodation for the kid, the the resolution lies with the parent(s) not the kid.

    Don’t tear yourself up about talking to the kid. He probably doesn’t care. If anything, reflect on why you spent time reflecting on the lady’s husband rather than a resolution.

    Reply
  8. Patrick

    I met a guy who was treated even worse than that defender by his folks. I met him when he came to the restaurant I was a sous chef at to do his placement from cooking school. He was about 19 or 20. He was passionate about cooking and I thought he would become a very good chef. He had one other passion…hockey. Played it as a kid and lived, ate and breathed it.

    He was adopted and his parents were both university professors (music and English IIRC). One evening, it was slow and we were basically hanging out in the kitchen waiting for orders. He told me, with a tone of great sadness, that neither of his parents had ever attended one of his games. They considered the game beneath them.

    Man if one of them had walked into the kitchen then, I would have given them a fry pan upside the head!

    Reply
    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth

      My father attended four of my BMX races over the span of fifteen years, and for the same reason. I know how that kid feels.

      Reply
      • DirtRoads

        Well, my mother never even called me when my Dad died.

        Oh wait, that’s for a different thread.

        Reply
  9. Charlie

    Was the kid that didn’t want to be there in goal? I felt like it was alluded to but not directly said.

    Reply
  10. MrGreenMan

    “My work schedule is such that I’m normally traveling out on Monday morning, working 16 hour days Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and then flying home, dead tired, on Friday afternoon.”

    A lot of the cranks who get hung up on a mean-spirited, loveless, penny-pinching calculation of measuring every single domestic activity and placing it in some ledger of simmering hate and anger, who believe that “involved parent” is only measured in man hours spent vacuuming, doing laundry, running the dishwasher, or otherwise waiting on a household domestic appliance, do not understand the extreme sacrifice that a working parent makes when they work this sort of hectic and draining schedule to carve out a Saturday free with their kids.

    Reply
  11. Shocktastic

    I coached my (much) younger sisters’ teams for two years. I enjoyed the kids. Most of the parents were quite nice. Some were unpleasant. A few were sociopaths. Your son’s coaches sound like they get the big picture.

    Reply
  12. WheeTwelve

    I debated whether to ask this, as I’m worried that I may be misunderstood. But my curiosity got the better of me. My question is this: what is it with the need (demand?) for the parents to attend their kids’ events (sports, theater, etc.)? I’m not trying to be insolent here. I’m genuinely curious.

    Growing up in a small town back in the Old Country, we had a limited number of sports to choose from (you know, snow, uphill both ways, etc.). I was asked to join a local team that competed in some kind of western conference. I was very happy to be on the team. But even though I worked my ass off, to this day I do not understand why I was asked to join the team, or why I was one of only two subs that travelled to all away games. I was happy to hang out with the guys, most of whom were older than I and in college (I was in high school). The dinners after the away games were always a riot. And sometimes the women’s team travelled with us to the away games.

    Most of our parents did not attend the home games, and NO ONE from our town attended the away games. I do not recall any of us ever discussing it. We would occasionally discuss the attendance of the home games, as it aided our meager budget. That was about it.

    It was some time after I had arrived in the States that I noticed this demand for the parents to attend their kids’ sports events. It seemed a little odd, but there were a number of things more curious than this, so I didn’t give it much thought. However, over the years the oddity has added up, and I’m genuinely curious to learn about the thinking/motivation behind this. Help?

    Reply
    • jz78817

      ” My question is this: what is it with the need (demand?) for the parents to attend their kids’ events (sports, theater, etc.)? I’m not trying to be insolent here. I’m genuinely curious.”

      Er… why wouldn’t you? if at least for support? It’s not like you have to be “that parent,” who believes his kid is NFL bound and harasses coaches about playing time.

      Reply
      • WheeTwelve

        I understand that showing up at one’s kids’ events shows support. My question was about this implied requirement to do so without exception. It seems to me that these days it’s more important for the parents to show up at their kids’ events, than to work long, hard hours in order to provide for the family. And that confuses me.

        Reply
    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth

      I think you’ve seen a divergence in parenting just like there’s been a divergence in economic opportunity, clothing, food, home ownership, and all of those other middle-class things that used to be far more of a shared experience.

      Once upon a time, parents didn’t go to away games. They didn’t follow their children around. Usually this was because they had several children and going to an away game would have meant neglecting the care and feeding of four kids to focus on one.

      Nowadays, we have two kinds of families. The people who have fallen back into the lower class who just don’t give a shit and don’t participate in any aspect of their kids’ lives. And the upper-middle-class parents who have very few children and follow them around obsessively as a consequence. Less middle ground. That’s America in 2017 by almost any measure you care to use.

      Reply
  13. DirtRoads

    What a great story, well written, good read. Thanks Bark.

    Double points because your kid ISN’T in one of those we-don’t-keep-score, everyone-gets-a-trophy POS leagues that teach kids you don’t really have to try to succeed in this world.

    Sounds like you’re both growing, as we all should do, all our lives. I’ve often said, stop growing, stop living.

    Reply
  14. Orenwolf

    An interesting aside to this post, given the subject matter, *and* the motherly reactions to their sons losing:

    https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/11/sports/soccer/girls-soccer-team-won-boys-league-spain.html

    Obviously, not a parallel here – these kids are much older, the situation is different, but it’s interesting to see how much it matters *to the parents* that their boys are being beaten by girls. I think that more than anything else adds credence to your theory that the boy is there because his mom wants him there, regardless of how well he does (and regardless of whether she treats *the boy* with respect or as an “Oh, yes, my boy is in competitive soccer league!” trophy achievement without *actually* caring about him and what he wants at all.

    Reply
    • Panzer

      I read two paragraphs up until the bit where the author started whinging about how the women’s league was being ignored and the female player started talking about technical proficiency being able to compensate for physical inferiority etc.. as if the reason why women’s sports don’t get the same coverage is because #thepatriarchy rather than because people (men and women) want to focus on the ultimate competition – which is between men because of unavoidable biological realities.

      I don’t see how a typical liberal article trying to invent sexism where it doesn’t exist has anything to do with this article about parenting, absent fathers and uninvolved mothers.

      Reply
  15. CJinSD

    I’ve got a different take on the coach’s intent by keeping Kevin at center midfield than Mark does. It isn’t about what’s best for the team. He has Kevin playing center midfielder because he sees Kevin growing into being a great center midfielder as he develops physically, and he is actually more concerned with what is best for the young players he is coaching than what is best for his team. That makes him a great youth coach, in my opinion anyway.

    Reply

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