Soccer, an exercise in empathy

As a family grows and ages, there are certain things that are perhaps inevitable that would have seemed strange before, like buying a minivan, shopping at Costco for practical reasons, and sitting in a lawn chair at the park three times a week watching kids play soccer. This is our first year registering our kids in community sports. It was the first year our son was eligible, and I didn’t really think that our daughter who is a few years older would be interested.

Trust me, I know how that sounds. It wouldn’t be the first time I was accused of having stereotypical views of gender roles, and at times I have earned those accusations. I recognize that I may have been working on underlying prejudicial understandings when I didn’t register my daughter in soccer, but at least that wasn’t my intent.

I like to think at least that I am a pretty engaged father. I know my kids. I watched my daughter interact with her friends, and I never really observed competitive instincts, and they would always default to imaginative play, never physical play. I talked to her about school, and the stories she told about phys. ed. class were more often about getting trouble for not paying attention than they were about enjoying the sports. When I would watch sports on TV or in real life, she was never interested, except she had learned that a trip to the arena often included a trip to the concession booth. If I want to motivate her to do a chore or task quicker, it doesn’t work to suggest that it’s a race (I’m not sure what works, but that certainly doesn’t). There are of course other benefits of sports, but my daughter was already getting plenty of social opportunities through school, church and other community stuff. We would usually go for weekly family bike rides through the park, so the athletic component was taken care of as well.

My son on the other hand is constantly jumping off of furniture, bragging about how fast he can run, and walking around the house and our yard with plastic hockey sticks and golf clubs hitting balls, pucks, trees, shins and other assorted toys. He and I wrestle for fun. My wife and I have had to tell him more than once that a headbutt is not an appropriate greeting. Making a race or a game out of a task is a reasonably effective motivator for him. Soccer made sense for him, it seemed.

Fast forward to this past week, and you might understand my confusion. My son happily gets ready, is proud of his new cleats and shin pads (he can share the shin pads with his sister), and he might even run to the playing field, but the drills and the game itself soon outlast his attention span and his energy level. Not only that, but he still doesn’t quite understand certain aspects of the game. At home, we tell him to share, but on the soccer field he is supposed to take the ball away from people, but not from his own teammates. Four year old soccer players rarely pass the ball, but when his team has the ball I tell him to run up and help his team just in case some kid does get that inclination. There was one play in particular this week where he had the ball, and as the other team was collapsing in on him, he kicked the ball really hard, and it hit an opponent on the knee. The other kid wasn’t wearing shin pads, and maybe didn’t have the pain tolerance of other kids that age, but he started crying and got mad at my son. My poor boy was utterly confused. Hadn’t he done what he was supposed to do? Was hurting other kids a part of soccer? If so, he wanted nothing to do with it. Our team had fewer kids that day, and so sometime people had to play back-to-back shifts. He came off after and just wanted me to hold him. This isn’t what I thought soccer would look like.

Leading up to last night’s game, and a few games before that, my daughter had been complaining that all the other girls had scored already, but she hadn’t. Partly it’s because she younger and smaller than the other girls and lacks the speed and technical skill that the others possess. I also told her though that she is a responsible defensive player, and it’s tough to score when you run back to stop the other team from scoring, like you’re supposed to, and other players wait at half for someone to pass them the ball. Last night there was a play where a teammate was running up toward the net on the right hand side. I told Ruby to run up and help her team, even though 6-8 year old girls don’t really pass either. The other girl shot the ball, it bounced off the flexible post and rested in front of the net, and my daughter was there to tap it in. She didn’t really celebrate, except that her teammates all hugged her as they walked back to the sidelines. Other parents too were congratulating her. It was one of the sweetest things I’ve ever seen, but I didn’t think that’s what soccer would look like either.