I come in at a cool 5 feet tall. I have the hands of a hobbit, and the agility of someone who has spent most of her youth hunched over a Barbie or a book. My athletic accomplishments were in the service of getting out of class. I still shake my head that my gym teacher believed a girl could have her period 30 days a month.
Now, as the mother of a 10-year-old boy who begs to be enrolled in soccer every spring, I find myself perplexed: I know that exercise, fresh air and group play is important for his development. I get it. But when I watch him play, it sends absolute panic to my throat. I can’t seem to separate my own fear of the nauseating image of a stretcher on the field from the casual game being played before me. And like me, he doesn’t really have the killer instinct.
At the local community centre, most parents leap to their feet, cheering their boys’ Fred Astaire-style footwork. In the far end stands my daydreaming child, his eyes staring into another world as he battles unknown foes with unseen lasers. He paces frantically to avoid blasts from an X-wing fighter closing in on the planet’s surface.
He stops to catch his breath.
I catch his eye.
“Follow the ball! Run! Go! GO!!” He nods at me, then takes up the string of his shorts and begins to braid it into some strange cat’s cradle-type of loom work. I sigh. The other parents smile empathetically. At the end of the game he hugs me, wiping no sweat from his brow and faux gasping for breath. He high fives the coach and the other players. “We won! Our team is awesome!” Uh … good game? I’m not sure why he’s taking ownership of the win but he’s happy so who am I to question the details?
He likes soccer. It’s not his favourite thing in the world but for some reason he wants to play in the league and it’s important to him that his team does well. He’s been playing in the local parks and rec soccer league since he was four years old. And he has never scored a goal.
“This year I’m going to get one, Mama. I can feel it,” he tells me. Every year.
But it doesn’t happen. Not even by accident off the back of some other kid. While the other guys talk about Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar, my kid would rather discuss whether the university library really does look like a peacock, or if Tony Stark pays taxes, or if animals can be zombies. His latest interest is breeding butterflies. I know, that’s pretty cute, but Beckham he is not. While the other guys glide, he slides—but it’s not baseball. He’s not a natural but it doesn’t seem to stop him from excitedly strapping on his shin guards, lacing up his cleats and rushing onto the field to find out if he’s in the first shift.
In the midst of his cello lessons, karate, talking about Tesla’s solar shingles and the new Thor movie, I remained perplexed. “Why did I wake up at 6:58 a.m. to enrol him in soccer?” The question slithered around in my mind as I lay with eyes bulging and heart pounding at 11 p.m. Why? Should I let him have his heart broken as he compares himself to the little athletes eating creamsicles next to him? Should I tell him that if he practises he’ll be the best or at least better? Or, should I steer his interests toward Dungeons and Dragons or Pokémon?
Keeping your kid in sports begins with the car ride home
I asked my son’s soccer coach, Gordon Villeneuve, who volunteers in the community league in Toronto. His philosophy: “I just praise hustle and effort but I’m not going to take away from a player’s enthusiasm and excitement for scoring. I’ll recognize the growth of kids who may not have scored, but contributed to the fun.”
Everybody needs a Coach Gordon. But I required way more reassurance that I was doing the right thing, and not somehow damaging my son by letting him continue in a sport that he’s just not that great at. Lisa Marucci, a psychotherapist and clinical social worker in Toronto, sees no harm—but actual benefits—in it. “Helping kids know the pros and cons of both competitive and non-competitive activities allows them to figure out who they are and what they think is best for them,” says Marucci. “Ultimately, fostering a sense of self, good relationships and an experience of competence is what you strive for in parenting.”
Is all my anxiety due to my own shameful athletic past? I just want him to succeed and not stand in a field waiting for a ball to hit him in the face.
“There will be plenty of authentic opportunities to shield your kids from crushing disappointment,” Coach Gordon says, “And if the kid is feeling disappointed, it’s a great opportunity to help them develop resilience. If they truly love soccer, they’ll find a way to have fun.”
Ohhh yeeaah, fun. That old thing. Could that be why he wanted to play soccer in the first place? Maybe he doesn’t care as much as I do. Is that why they call it “play”?
My kid started the season running, kicking and trying his best. He still hasn’t scored but he knows, thanks to Coach Gordon, that he’s great at protecting his net and getting the ball closer to the other end so that the little wiry kid with the monobrow can kick it in. He’s part of the goal, the game and the team. Maybe that’s enough for him. And for me.