Friday, May 21, 2010

Goodbye Soccer

When I was a kid there were three little league sports available in my town. There was baseball in the spring and summer, football in the fall, and basketball in the winter. It seemed like all boys played baseball and lots of boys played football. Basketball seemed to be somewhat more exclusive. You had to have at least some talent for it.

All of these were male only sports. I knew that older girls played softball because I sometimes saw them practicing on fields adjacent to our practice fields. But if there were little league sports for younger girls, I was oblivious to them. I had only brothers.

I hated team sports as a kid. I have never been any good at any game involving a ball. But I played because that’s what my brothers and all of my friends did. My baseball summers consisted of dreading to go to bat for the inevitable strike out and seemingly endless hours standing in right field where the ball seldom came. I swatted gnats and picked dandelions, unconscious of what was happening in the game.

Mom and Dad signed me up for football when I was eight, figuring that I was just like my older brothers. The team was huge. I was so bad that I was fourth string right offensive guard. I showed up game after game, but never played. That was OK because I didn’t want to play anyway. But the coach put me in during the last quarter of the final game of the season. Dad, who was watching the game from the car, had fallen asleep by then. I never signed up for football again.

Once a boy in my town turned 12, his little league days were finished. He could play church sports — softball in the summer and basketball in the winter. He could play school sports — football, basketball, baseball, wrestling, tennis — but only if he was good enough. I heard of a few kids playing on competition league teams, but these were rare in my area back then.

I never even heard of anyone playing youth soccer until I was 17. The first time I actually saw kids play soccer (except as part of gym class) was when I was a young adult living in Norway. By the time I was a father, however, it seemed like all kids played soccer. Plus there were lots of other types of athletics available for both boys and girls (and mixed). Many sports offered competition leagues.

Although I had detested playing sports as a kid, I vowed that as a father I would give my kids the opportunity to play and I would support them. I didn’t want my kids to miss out just because I didn’t care for sports. But I also vowed that I would never make any child of mine play sports if he didn’t want to.

We signed my oldest son up for AYSO soccer when he turned five. (We have never done any soccer other than AYSO.) Back then they fielded a fairly large team on a fairly large field. The kids ran around in a big bunch, all trying to kick the ball at the same time. One kid on each side played goalie. My son was often one of those that was off somewhere on the field picking dandelions.

Toward the end of my son’s second season, he was put in as goalie. An opposing player with a good leg (but lousy aim) kicked a ball right into my son’s gut. The team cheered him for his heroic save, but it had all been an accident. He thought he was going to pass out. At any rate, he was done with soccer. He later played baseball for a couple of seasons, but then decided he was done with all team sports.

My second son was far more adept at soccer. He seemed to enjoy it. Year after year he kept coming back. He played well in the back and mid-field, but was never great as a forward. When he got older, his teammates became aware of his goalie abilities. He didn’t mind playing in the goal, but he didn’t want to be there full time. When he was 16, he received an ankle injury as the result of an illegal action by a non-registered player. It took six months of physical therapy to fully recover. Although he liked soccer, he decided that he was done with it. He also played baseball several seasons, but eventually ran into enough time conflicts that he quit.

I was impressed with the soccer setup when son #3 started playing. They had small fields. Each team fielded three players at a time. There were no goalies. The coaches were on the field refereeing and coaching players. I thought it was a great way to learn. But my boy wouldn’t focus on the game. The next thing you know, he’d be talking to the coach of the opposing team about Pokemon or something. About halfway through the season, he simply refused to play anymore.

The following season, my #3 boy decided he wanted to play again. My wife relented and signed him up. He actually seemed to be developing well. Then after the best quarter of soccer I had ever seen him play, he came up to me and said, “Dad, I’m not going to play anymore.” It was his turn to sit out a quarter anyway. But when it was his turn to go back in, he refused. He said, “I just don’t want to play soccer anymore,” and he was serious. He did baseball for a few seasons and even tried basketball once, but he eventually decided that team sports were not for him.

My #4 son seemed to enjoy soccer, except that he detested the games eating into his Saturday morning cartoon and leisure time. He played for a few seasons, but then he decided that the game was too much of an imposition on his valuable time. He did baseball for a couple of seasons, but then he started developing problems with migraine headaches that would completely wipe him out. The headaches often came on during baseball practices or games, which were held on a shade free field. Maybe the heat had something to do with it. Anyway, he quit baseball.

My daughter has played baseball, but didn’t sign up this year. She was never as aggressive as some other girls on her soccer teams, but she has held her own. I felt like she played quite well this season. When soccer signup started a few weeks ago, however, she asked that we not register her for next season. Even after last week’s final game of the season, where she scored well, she expressed relief that she won’t be playing soccer again next season.

As I walked off the soccer field a few days ago, I realized that it was the last time I would be attending an AYSO soccer game as a parent. The next time I attend will be as a grandparent. That will likely be a number of years down the road. Despite my aversion to team sports, I have attended a lot of soccer games over the years to support my children. My wife has coached some of our children’s teams.

My wife and I are both happy that this phase is done. But oddly, it leaves me with a somewhat wistful feeling.

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