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.