Monday, February 23, 2009
A Safe Bet
I don't usually tempt fate. I change my oil every 3,000 miles, I buy travel insurance, I never step on cracks. But sometimes fate doesn't require tempting; it just appears. Robbie had a tournament this past weekend in Las Vegas so we had to travel on Friday the 13th. When we checked into the hotel we were given rooms on the 13th floor. If I was a gambling person I probably should have bet big, but I'm not. Like I said, I don't tempt fate.
Las Vegas didn't cooperate on the weather. Even a contingent of Wisconsinites resorted to hats, gloves, and winter coats. Nevertheless it was a pleasure to finally watch the boys play outdoors for the first time in three months. Watching the players laugh, run, and jostle reminded me of young colts let out of the stable for the first time. Their energy is boundless.
Despite the fact that the tournament included only Under-15 through Under-19 boys and girls, young players crowded the sidelines and empty green spaces with impromptu play. Some of those dribbling the ball had just learned to walk, yet they showed great finesse streaking between the fields. Three of my grandchildren live in Vegas, so they came to watch. Even though they have had limited exposure to soccer, within minutes of me pulling out a size 3 ball from my bag, they were dribbling and passing like the three, five, and eight year old pros they had suddenly become. The generosity of inclusion quickly follows as other kids in the area join in.
I don't know if my Vegas grandchildren will end up playing soccer like their uncles. But I like the fact that they find the same joy and exercise in the sport for the time being. I'm resigned that my oldest grandson in Ohio will probably be a baseball player, though there's still hope for his younger sibling who seems to love soccer. What I do want to see happen is that all of them participate in some sport. It's unlikely that they will all end up playing through high school. Despite some natural athleticism, they also need the passion for the sport. Their passions may end up being music, or art, or science. Nevertheless, I hope they all participate in sports in their youngest years.
Watching what I call "run and screech" time with the kids, I recognize the benefits that organized sports offer. While kids can benefit from unstructured activities on occasion, they gain other significant benefits from structured exercise. Playing on a team or even doing an individual sport teaches kids the discipline of commitment, the humility of defeat, and the pride of victory. Kids learn to listen to instruction, to watch themselves improve, and to set goals for future successes. Sports provide good health. Sports also provide one outlet for parental support and praise.
I also saw how kids' enthusiasm can be quashed quickly. Two boys about five and six were kicking around the soccer ball behind me before one of the games. The boys were inventing games to play such as "stand on the ball and pop it out" and "dribble backwards." They were definitely enjoying their unstructured "run and screech" time, when Dad intervened by insisting they play by the rules. He spent a great deal of time organizing the two of them to face one another in combat with goals laid out on the grass between chairs and coats. Like a leak in a balloon, the enthusiasm seeped out leaving two deflated young players suddenly laboring rather than cavorting. With the best of intentions parents hope for the perfection of greatness, but it's the imperfect moments that often provide the most fun and the greatest growth. While sports can demand refinement of skills, sports for youngsters should emphasize participation, joy, and broader rewards such as good health and sportsmanship. Parents can relax knowing that their responsibility isn't to teach. They just need to provide the opportunity and cheer from the sidelines. If a sport becomes a passion, that passion grows in the child internally and can be nurtured later.
If I were a betting woman, I'd bet that most of the kids, both young and old, on those fields will never end up playing soccer past high school if even that long. I would also bet that most of the kids, if left to their own devices, will remember their soccer days fondly. The absolute benefit of youth soccer unfolds in the unbridled moments on the field when the players just enjoy one another and the play. Remembering that in any pursuit only a very few will arrive at the pinnacle of success means recognizing that for most the pursuit should be fun, low in pressure, and contribute to a player's sense of self-worth. If we melt away all the elite programs and just focus on the majority of players in youth soccer who participate because they want to be part of a team, want to taste some victory, want to have some exercise, and want to enjoy a family experience, then I bet we can all appreciate the true value of youth sports. It's a winning bet. Remember, I don't like to tempt fate.