Monday, June 08, 2009
I saw a television commercial the other night which shows a mom helping her nine or 10 year old son try out a variety of sports albeit unsuccessfully. Football, baseball, tennis, and golf evade this youngster's capabilities. As these various frustrations fade in and out, a chorus provides an inspirational background song. Dissolve to the actual chorus on stage and the mom in the audience basking as the boy steps out of the group and sings his solo like an angel.
I applaud the commercial for reinforcing that every child doesn't need to be a sports specialist. The world needs singers, actors, artists, even writers. I personally couldn't survive without mechanics. But I think the ad also diminishes participation in sports by equating it with success. Kids need to break a few windows, tear up divots, throttle the ball over the side nets, or boot the ball into the woods before they can develop the finesse to be more accurate and controlled. Sports, like any activity, have a learning curve. No one, not Freddy Adu, not LeBron James, not Florence Joyner, who were sports prodigies, walks for the first time onto a field, a court, or a track fully formed as an athlete. Letting a child give up on a sport because in the first hour he or she hasn't mastered it sends the message that sports can't be fun unless you're an expert.
I remember our oldest daughter bowling for the first time. She was about seven. She threw the initial ball down the alley which wobbled and rolled into the gutter. She turned around, stomped her foot and declared, "I'm not playing anymore" as she stormed in a huff to the bench. It took us about 20 minutes to convince her to roll the second ball. Thankfully this one painfully sashayed down the lane and precariously hung on the edge of the alley before knocking down two pins. Otherwise, I doubt we would have ever gotten her to try a third time. However, over the next year, with lessons, she ended up requesting her own ball and shoes and had won a patch for beating Earl Anthony (who bowled with his opposite hand) in a three frame contest. She eventually went on to become a ballet dancer and then a fashion merchandiser. She bowls once or twice a year. But she learned to persevere through her novice stage which gave her the confidence to persevere through other frustrating experiences. For a perfectionist such as she is, it was good to learn that success doesn't come immediately nor does past success guarantee future success.
This was a lesson learned by Robbie's team last weekend. They lost in the finals of the US Youth Soccer Wisconsin State Championships. They had been doing quite well over the spring, but seemed to lose steam at the end. The game was a rematch of last year's final and the other team was hungrier for their vindication of last year's loss. Sadly, for about half his team, this game marked the end of their competitive soccer experience that began for most at ages five and six. Some are going on to play in college and some will play club in college. But no matter what the future holds, all of them continued with soccer up to this point because they found companionship with teammates and joy with the game. No one considers himself an expert at the sport. But win or lose, soccer awarded each of them with advantages that aren't measured by success.
I admit to some bittersweet moments once the game was over. I'll miss not going to US Youth Soccer Regional Championships. I love the caliber of games, the spectacle of the event, and the fun of seeing kids Robbie and Bryce have known through their soccer networks. At the same time I'm a bit grateful for not having to drive ten hours and live in a hotel for six nights. I must be getting old! I think about the first time the boys walked onto a soccer field and at first were overwhelmed by the game. But they loved being with their friends, loved being outdoors, loved attacking the ball, loved scoring, loved falling, and loved getting the snack after the game. Some of their friends who began soccer with them switched along the way to either other sports or other interests. Despite many of them not continuing with soccer, their friendship and their connection with our family did continue. Now as they are poised to graduate from high school we get to hear where these past teammates are going to school, what they will study, and what they plan to do. It's a rich collection of kids who provide new insights into the world and its opportunities every time they interact with us.
I do appreciate these kids for all they offer us, but I also appreciate soccer for being the gateway into their world. As we enter the season for tryouts, I know that anxieties run high. The focus shifts heavily to success and the innocence of recreational soccer gives way to apprehension. So I know how important remembering the good times turns out to be. We need to remember that if our kids love to play soccer, then they should continue to play. US Youth Soccer supports teams at all age levels and at many different skill levels. So every kid who wants to play should be able to play. As parents we need to not feed into a sense of failure if our children don't make a particular team. Instead look upon it as an opportunity to both expand your network of friends and to experience a different style of coaching and playing. Most importantly, no child should give up. Teams come and go with varying degrees of success. The joy of playing a sport or singing a song or solving an equation should transcend set-backs. Even the world's best bowler throws a gutter ball or two every year.