When I was a virgin
On March 28, 2003, when I was doing a weekly sports column for Flak Magazine, I posted a piece titled “The Harsh World of Kindergarten Soccer.” It was based on my oldest son’s first foray into competitive sports. It’s interesting to me to look at my knee-jerk reaction to his first game, and how much my perspective has changed in the intervening six years in youth sports parenting and coaching.
Oh my… that kindergarten panda is playing soccer with another panda’s decapitated head!
Here is the piece, interspersed with some thoughts on what I would say to my six-years-ago self:
Just when it seems there’s no place in sports as pure and innocent as it appears to be, you get the chance to watch a bunch of kindergartners play league soccer for the first time.
Being that they’re kindergartners and have spent the school year learning about respect toward others and playing fair, both sides — home team Sacred Heart on Chicago’s Southeast Side and visitor St. Catherine of Alexandria from suburban Oak Lawn — seem shocked at having adults tell them to go after the team in the different-colored shirts for no apparent reason. Five-year-olds understand getting mad because somebody took your toy or called you a name, not because somebody is wearing the wrong clothes. That doesn’t come until junior high.
The kids are so polite that in the first minutes of the game no one challenges another player when he or she (it’s a coed league) tries to kick the ball. You can’t steal the ball from anyone — that’s wrong!
Soon, though, exhorted by their coaches, the just-out-of-diaper dandies catch on to the idea that they should try to kick the ball into the other team’s net. At that point, almost all the players chase the ball and gather around it, kicking with such vigor it looks like it’s being attacked by a hyperactive millipede. I say “almost” because each team has, of course, a goalie, and two defenders, who spend the game thinking about candy or the new Harry Potter DVD until the ball comes their way and they’re suddenly called on to participate, and with one swift kick the other way they can get back to their thoughts.
During all this, the parents cheer approvingly and supportively.
In looking back, I can’t underestimate how weird it is for everyone — players, coaches and parents — when everyone is making their first stab at youth sports. I know that most of my son’s team was made up of oldest children, so it wasn’t like there were been-there, done-that parents who were killing time, or parents who already had it in their minds that this was the first stop toward professional glory.
But as the second half begins, the first chinks in the kindergartners’ purity and innocence begin to appear, though they won’t realize this on this cool, sunny Saturday afternoon in late April, nor until years later, possibly.
By this time, every parent and coach has figured out who the really good players are. St. Catherine has a girl who looks like the second coming of Mia Hamm. It’s not just that she was fast and could kick and run at the same time. Where she really stood out was her awareness and control in keeping the ball inbounds, this in a game where the field width was expanded 10 yards because the ball was kicked out of bounds so frequently. Parents begin talking to each other about this girl and her ability; one even jokes about how other St. Catherine players were “getting in her way.”
This girl will go unnamed because, in an age where scouting services tell you who is the best fifth-grade basketball player in the country, there’s a danger some scout is going to show up at her games, and autograph seekers will come calling, figuring that by now she should know how to write her name.
Maybe I shouldn’t have said the kindergartners’ innocence and purity were being lost. I’m implying it here, but the loss of innocence is on their parents. Youth sports can be the first chance to measure up your kid against another, if you so choose. That’s one of the many reasons why parents freak out at games — the whole my-kid-is-a-reflection-on-me thing. By the way, that does not extend to the mother of future Mia Hamm, who looked genuinely shocked at how adept her daughter was. No shock, this girl has continued to have great athletic success, and fortunately her family has been supportive without becoming stage parents from hell. I play basketball with this girls’ stepdad, and he’s as nice a guy as they come.
As for other players, you can sense parents mentally keeping track of how long their children have been sitting on the bench. Or maybe that’s just me. My 5-year-old son plays for St. Catherine and, like the other kids, gets a lot of playing time. The coaches seem very aware of making sure everyone gets to play an equal amount. But the parent in me can’t help but get antsy if it seems like my boy was benched a nanosecond longer than he has to be. As a parent, you get overprotective, in part because if your child feels like he hasn’t played long enough, you’ll have to deal with the crying and complaining all the way home.
I didn’t technically say the child would be crying. It could be a spouse, or yourself.
Fortunately, this is a passing feeling for me, though it made me understand how parents get so nutty at children’s sporting events that some leagues have banned any cheering or noise whatsoever. First, you worry about playing time. Then, you start complaining about the refs. Next, you’re hitting the coach over the head with his clipboard.
Perhaps the greatest loss of innocence — or greatest life lesson, depending on your point of view — is that a score is kept. When the aforementioned Mia Hamm-in-the-making scores, the St. Catherine players erupt with a joy comparable to that on Christmas morning. When the clock runs out with the score still 1-0, a similar joy results … once the players are told the game is over and they’ve won. On the Sacred Heart side, the young players just mill about until they’re told what to do. The teams may not understand exactly why winning or losing is important, but the ultimate loss of innocence is knowing that it matters.
That last sentence now makes me want to barf. Kids know winning and losing matters from the earliest of ages. Why else does “MINE!” enter the vocabulary so early? The only difference here is that the kids are learning their winning and losing matters to OTHER people so much. And that part of what separates those who will stay with sports with those who don’t is the ability to get het up about winning on demand, rather than just whenever you feel like it.