Arriving a few minutes early for his first soccer practice of the season, my 5-year-old son and I sat watching the end of another team’s scrimmage. I was struck that a mom was coaching in this testosterone-driven boys’ league. And I was impressed by how she combined a playful style of encouragement with a brush-off-your-boo-boos sort of approach.
But her assistant coach lectured her at the end of practice about how the boys needed to learn the “ABCs” of soccer and about how she should ramp up the drills for their next engagement. When she finally pried herself away from his admonitions, saying something like, “I’d better go find my kid,” she looked down at me and sighed.
My son’s practice – nary his season – had barely commenced, and I was already stressed. Making soccer firm but fun is not enough for most of the parents I’ve encountered on these fields. And eavesdropping on this post-game powwow and seeing my son’s subsequent scrimmage confirmed that, often, the best thing we can do for our kids is to stay out of it.
Soon, my son’s coach arrived with two assistants and an older son, armed with a whistle, of which he made liberal use over the next hour. I wondered how many coaches a team of 11 kindergarteners could possibly need.
Instead of having the boys introduce themselves to each other – we do want to encourage passing, right? – the coach started swearing that “that woman” had just walked off with his cones. Apparently, she hadn’t after all, since a flurry of fluorescent discs quickly dotted the field.
As parents unfolded lawn chairs and geared up to gossip and holler, a particularly intent father balanced a telephoto lens on his knee. The coach then handed out purple jerseys to team “Ireland,” greeted by a chorus of complaints from the sidelines. Could another country in this youth league possibly have a stronger claim to green?
But the boys didn’t care. They donned their billowing, new tops and darted around during a passing drill.
“Don’t collapse on the ball,” a sidelined parent sang out.
“Keep moving!” another yelled at his son.
I, myself, had to fight the urge to jump up and follow several parents onto the field to tuck in my son’s oversized shirt. With effort, I restrained myself to whispering, “Good job, bud,” during a water break.
Scrimmage posed a new challenge for parents. Most kids had doffed their white shirts to sport their new, purple jerseys. Now it was time to form two teams. “Shirts and skins,” the coach cried. As I watched my son’s skinny, white torso emerge from its violet casing, all I could think about was sunburn.
But the boys were fine. One innocently informed the coach, distracted by his iPhone, that he'd made a handball. Otherwise, play ceased only briefly for goals and hydration breaks. During one, a teammate emptied his water bottle onto his head to the delighted squeals of fellow players.
Despite the glaring rays and the parents’ yells of, “Steal it! Go!” – the boys had a ball, so to speak. Despite the parents’ intensity and agendas, soccer, or any sport at this age, is still just slightly-more-barely-controlled chaos than it was the year before.
These kids just want to run. So let's get out of their way.