It is often said, by people who have endured the pain of making decisions on behalf of their offspring, that children don’t come with a manual. In my case, this wasn’t strictly true—my dear brother gave me a rather amusing “owner’s manual” for babies which read much like a Chilton’s for diaper changing when my son, Kevin, was born nearly 11 years ago. But the sentiment remains true. You never really know if you’re doing the right thing for your child.
You agonize over the simplest things, like wondering if he’s drinking too much juice or not enough juice. You watch with bated breath as he goes to preschool for the first time, hoping he’ll make friends. You wonder if he’ll be picked on for something as simple as his name, a lifelong curse that you put on him from birth. And then you watch as he finally puts himself in a situation where real failure is a possibility, like trying out for one of the top six soccer clubs in the state, and you wonder if you had just spent one more day helping him with his foot skills instead of taking that press trip to California, if that would have made the difference.
Luckily for me, my son made the team, and this past weekend they had their first tournament.
It was very early in the season—the team had exactly three practices before kickoff on Saturday morning, and they would be playing a fellow Premier League opponent in their very first match (there are four tiers of select soccer in Kentucky, and Premier is the top league with the best teams).
Unfortunately, the weather and Delta airlines conspired to make me miss the morning’s first match, as I had been delayed overnight on my return from Miami. The text updates I was getting from the other parents weren’t promising, though—after a quick early goal, the team of 10-year olds never quite jelled together on the pitch, and they lost 6-1. Oh, no, I thought to myself from the seat of my MD-88. He’s gone from one bad situation to another. Maybe they’re not good enough to compete in this league.
I arrived in Kentucky in enough time for the second match, and despite having lost by a large margin, Kevin appeared to be in good spirits when I saw him. “I think I played pretty well,” he told me. “The coach just let us all play whatever position we wanted to.” Hmm. Okay.
I was speaking with another of the parents when a man about my height who appeared to be in his early fifties or so approached. I realized that the combination of a rather late coaching change for the team (the original coach took another job with a team in Tennessee), the limited number of practices, and my work schedule had meant that I had never actually met the coach. I quickly introduced myself to him as “Kevin’s dad,” and asked him how my son was doing.
“He’s a thinker,” Coach said. “Good kid. Need him to stay focused, but he’s doing really well. He listens to what I tell him.” He didn’t seem to be too concerned about the blowout loss that morning, and I figured that a team with three practices under its belt probably just needed a little more time.
The afternoon’s match, against a team that had always annihilated my son’s old squad, went much better. They won 3-2, but they were still struggling a bit to maintain shape and pass the ball. They were playing like 9 individuals, not as a team. But, most importantly, I liked what I saw from the coach—he was virtually silent in the first half, watching and observing as kids made both mistakes and great plays. In the second, he became much more vocal with the team, correcting errors and giving direction.
That being said, I didn’t feel that my son had played like himself. He was very passive on the field, and lacked the typical aggression I’d seen from him in the past. I attributed much of this to being on a new team, surrounded by new kids whose approval he very badly wanted. But the coach approached me after the game and said, “Kevin played great. He’s still thinking a bit too much, but he had some great plays. Really good on throw ins.”
However, I knew better, because I know what he’s actually capable of. That night, I reminded Kevin that he needed to play with more intensity and confidence. When he was seven, and he moved from U6 to U8 soccer, he was so passive and afraid that his coach thought it was his first time playing soccer—and he’d been playing for three years. I know how he reacts to new situations. He’s not the type to run in and take charge. He’s much more likely to be passive for a bit, to feel out the situation. I reminded him how talented he is, how he made this team because of his abilities, and reassured him that I loved him and that I was very, very proud of him.
Unfortunately, they were matched up against the same two teams on the second day of the tournament. But the morning’s game against the team who had defeated them on day one started out much, much better. While the other squad still dominated possession, our kids fought hard and kept it scoreless right up until the half, when an unfortunate own goal occurred. Even so, it felt like a different squad. The final score was 0-3, thanks to a bad call that surrendered a PK and a goal that was clearly offside by five or more feet. But there was no doubt that our kids could play with them, heads up.
After the game, I saw some familiar faces from his old team approaching the pitch, which was odd because they weren’t playing in our division. It turned out that a couple of the better kids from the team were “playing up” for the U12 squad. After some friendly handshakes, I watched them play for a little bit—and it was more of the same from last year. Disorganization, lack of coaching, and kids who weren’t trying. I had never felt so validated in a decision as I did at that moment.
The afternoon’s game took an interesting turn—my son was asked to play goalkeeper. While he was primarily a keeper for his U8 and U9 seasons, he hadn’t played a moment in the goal in his U10 season. And he was afraid. Tears welled up in his eyes, and the coach looked at me and mouthed “is he okay?” I gave Kevin a quick hug, grabbed his goalkeeping gloves out of his bag, and said, “He’ll be fine.”
And boy, was he ever. He made save after save, commanding the whole field with his high-pitched voice. He came out of the box and challenged the opponents. He surrendered only one goal, on a penalty kick, and even that he got a hand on. They won easily, 4-1.
After the match, the coach had the now confident team surround him on the bench. Here’s what he said:
“You guys outhustled them this afternoon. We didn’t play particularly great soccer, but we beat them to the ball, and we got a lot of hustle goals. I love that. I can’t teach you to try. I can’t teach you to hustle. I can teach you everything else. If you hustle like that, we are going to win a lot of games this season, and we are going to improve. And how about it for Kevin? He was a wall back there, wasn’t he? Go tell your parents that you love them. Every game, we will congratulate our opponents, we will thank the referees, and we will give our moms and dads a hug and tell them that we love them.”
With the win, they ended up finishing second overall in the bracket. More importantly, I love this coach, I love this team, and I love these kids. I’m sure that there will be some bumps in the road, but for once in my life, I’m pretty sure that I made the right decision for Kevin (pictured above with his best pal, Brayden, after the win). He’s going to learn from this coach and this team. And they’re going to win some matches, too. I fail much more often as a parent than I succeed, but this one, I got exactly right.