Getting a kick out of youth soccer
I think most parents would agree that there is no greater theater than youth sports. In T-ball, for example, everyone can hit off the tee but no one can field so home runs are the norm even with a one-base-per-overthrow rule. Every base is an overthrow. In fact, my older son’s T-ball coach used to tell the kids to hit the ball and keep running until someone told them to stop. It was a remarkably winning strategy.
In my personal view, why would one want to sit through nine yawner innings of adult baseball with a final score of 1-0 when you could see an action-packed cliffhanger ending in 30 to 29? And I humbly submit: where but on the T-ball field at the Y will you ever see an unassisted triple play?
But T-ball games are over for the season and now every available open space seems to be populated by youth soccer teams revving up for the fall season. Not long ago while I was sorting through old files, I came across a copy of a letter I had written to a friend when my younger son, Henri, then age four, first started soccer.
Although I was initially hesitant to have him start team sports so early, Henri has now played the first four out of a 10-game season in a nursery school soccer league. At first I wondered: who are these deranged people who put four-year-olds in regulation uniforms and have them run up and down a soccer field during nap time? Somehow a basic requirement (or three) of team soccer ought to be that you can 1) talk, 2) do a jumping jack, and 3) know which is your goal. The socks also shouldn’t be taller than you are. Most points were initially scored by each team kicking the ball into their own goal, while the parents ran up and down the sidelines gesturing wildly and screaming, “The OTHER WAY! Go the OTHER WAY!” Just as the poor kids start to get a sense of which way they were going, they change goals at half time. But the kids seemed just as happy to score on their own goal as the other team’s; in fact, just after Henri’s team had lost 10-0, one of his teammates came running off the field jubilantly declaring, “We won! We won!”
Henri came back after the first game (which I hadn’t been able to attend) announcing that his job was “‘tecting the goal.” During one game when we had a substitute coach, we had to call a time-out while I loped out into the field and explained to my sobbing, distraught child that the substitute coach’s instructions to defend the goal were the same as ‘tecting the goal. (The poor kid just had no idea what that meant.) In another game, the other team’s goalie walked off the field mid-play announcing with barely contained ennui that he didn’t feel like playing any more. This is not an uncommon occurrence.
They run up and kick the ball, missing it, and fall down. Some of them are so short they just knee it. None of them have quite grasped that, with the exception of the goalie, this is a “feet only” game; the coach has been trying to convey to them that you cannot just pick up the ball and run. Henri came home from his third game announcing happily that his team “got free goalies” (three goals). Actually, they may just have gotten three goalies as that is definitely the most hazardous position in the game. Just as the goalie reaches down to get the ball, a kid runs up and accidentally kicks the goalie in the head. It’s very hard being the goalie’s mother. Time-outs are frequently called for players needing to have their shoes tied or their elbows kissed. Definitely unclear on zone defense, both teams end up bunched in a single clump lurching down the field looking like a scrum of disoriented midgets, and often ending up in the equivalent of a 10-car pile-up when one kid trips over another one. In their heart of hearts, I think what the kids like best is the post-game donut stop at Winchell’s.
What I couldn’t have known then was that Henri would continue ‘tecting the goal all the way through high school and college and now in adult leagues. I’ve watched hundreds of soccer games over the years but I have to confess: I’ve never enjoyed a season more than the first one.
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