This weekend I’m at the Veterans Invitational Soccer Tournament, a nicely-run operation in Evansville, IN. My son plays on one of the Indiana Olympic Development state pool teams. Players are sorted into squads and have to learn to improve together over the course of the two days. This makes it different from when they play on their club teams, since the emphasis is on development and problem-solving, not on ‘winning’. That’s what the ODP coaches say.
This is the one weekend of the youth soccer year when I’m on the parents’ sideline and not the coach’s. As ODP parents, we all agree not to coach from the sidelines (which is what I ask of our club team parents, of course). This turns out to be very very difficult. I begin with noble intentions, shooting video of the game (which I never get to do) so I can show my son over lunch some things of which he could be aware when he plays. I promise myself I will be constructively critical, and that I’ll watch my tone of voice. This actually works out reasonably well, as the game isn’t that close (we lose)– a fact I accept early on as the game takes shape. I even think for a second that I can be proud of my restraint.
Then comes the second match of the day. I again shoot video (which I also never get to do). Anyone who looks at the second video will realize that my heart-rate has gone up; it shakes, moves, and often stares at the ground or sky, twitching awkwardly, until I jerk it back into position, realizing I’ve forgotten what I’m doing. But the audio on my recording really betrays me. This is a closer game, and our ODP team is the better squad, but they fall behind early due to a mistake. Meanwhile, my son has been put at center-forward (I never play him there; he’s usually at defensive midfield or center back). For some reason I now badly want him to score a goal, and when he golfs a sitter over the bar I mumble: “just shoot it on the ground…,” a mantra I tell my strikers very single day. When the wingers break up the line, and he stands there waiting, I squeak out, “make the run; make the run!” as if he could hear me (and knowing I’m not supposed to say anything). Around me, other parents, all of us so quiet and good the first game, are starting to crack the shells of our promises. We smell the possibility that our team can get a result. Parents of the opposing team, not bound by our promises, begin to grumble about referee decisions. We then begin to grumble about their inability to accept the obvious fouls that their children are inflicting upon our fair-play boys. Slowly, each fan begins to give themselves permission to voice what has been building up all day–the desperate hope that their boy, on their team, will be the difference-maker, the hero, overcoming nature (high winds) and villains (the other team, of course). Development and problem-solving ideals go out the window. We really just want them to win, though we still pretend to tell ourselves (because we want to be ‘good’ parents) that deep inside, of course, what matters is what they are learning from all this.
In the second half, a boy whom I coach at our club scores two goals, both times by shooting the ball on the ground, just like I tell him (though he doesn’t seem to do this as often as I’d wish for the club; it’s like when teachers tell you that your child is such a good listener in school when they certainly don’t listen at home!). Suddenly, the kids are doing what they should be doing without our yelling out the instructions, and our team is controlling the game. Just like the ODP coaches said.
So what breaks our resolve and our oath not to interfere? Nothing more mysterious than hope, I’d wager. Hope that something good will happen for them that builds their confidence. Hope that they can tell a story later about how they made a big play. Hope that our timely word was just what they needed to make that key play. Hope that somehow, their success on that field is a sign of success for them later in life. It’s not rational. It’s just a manifestation of how much we care about them.
What they really need, of course, is for us to shut up and let them play, cheering them along to help provide the emotional energy they need, and not distracting them with the words we desperately think they need. Just like the ODP coaches said.
So that’s my resolution now; that’s my promise.
Until tomorrow’s games.