Monday, August 15, 2011
I'd forgotten how much fun it is to watch a soccer game through the eyes of a novice viewer. Over the years, most of us have had this experience as we indoctrinate grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, friends and any other person willing to share a weekend game or two with us. Soccer takes on a whole new meaning when explaining "off side" or "penalty kick" to the uninitiated. The boys have played long enough that we've managed to introduce nearly everyone we know and love to the game. Most of our family and friends knew that eventually they would have to participate in a sideline visit no matter how much their preconceived notions about soccer warned them away. Eventually, as the boys traveled more, the soccer came to their town so that they could no longer politely refuse to come to watch. I admit I behaved something like an itinerant preacher for soccer, praising the sport with a zeal they couldn't refuse. I managed a few converts over the years, but I didn't win them all. Nevertheless, I loved the thrill of giving someone the informational tools to begin to enjoy the sport.
So imagine my delight a few weeks ago when the bus driver who brought our team to Huntsville, Ala. for a tournament sat down next to me and said, "This is my first soccer game." Now I had double the reason to enjoy the game: I could watch my sons play while opening the door to the world of soccer for my new student. I quickly established our starting point. She had children, but they had never played. She truly had never seen a soccer game, not even snippets of the World Cup. She had heard of Pele, but no one else. She knew players couldn't use their hands except for the goal keeper, and she knew they tried to score in the opponent's net. She didn't know how many players were on the field, nothing about their positions or responsibilities (except for the goal keeper), and she didn't know how long a game ran. This was going to be fun!
I need to stop for a moment in my story to point out two very significant benefits of teaching someone about the game. First, you need to really understand the rules and the nuances of soccer in order to explain them to someone else. I thank youth soccer for providing me with a strong base upon which to build my knowledge. Although I had lived in Europe and had been initially introduced to soccer in my teens, I didn't really care much about rules until my own children started playing. I was blind to the intricacies of soccer until I had the chance to slowly develop an understanding by watching youth games. Just as my kids grew up learning soccer, so did I. Second, you get the opportunity to invest yourself in the game beyond hassling the referees or pushing your child. Taking the time to see the game through the eyes of a neophyte affords you the chance to step back from deep involvement in the game and re-experience your own first introduction to soccer.
With an apprentice sitting next to me anxious to absorb all my nuggets of wisdom, the ball skittered over the goal line and the keeper set up for a goal kick. "Why's he doing that?" So I got to explain the two actions that can happen depending on which team sends it over the end line. She caught on pretty quick to the difference between a goal kick and a corner kick. Throw-ins were a cinch. Fouls were trickier because, well because they are occasionally subjective and therefore obviously wrong, so explaining them required some restraint not to editorialize. I left that to my fellow fans. I did get to explain about cards when she couldn't understand why some fouls were just fouls and some were carded. Again, I did my best to explain why one offense was treated more egregiously than others. Some were easier, especially when they were called against our opponents. When a player received a red card, she wondered why his foul was worse than any other foul. Since the card was given to one of our players, I actually had the same question. But I had to find the reason and make it plausible. "Our player took down the opposing player from behind without going for the ball. That was considered dangerous play and in the eyes of the referee warranted a red card. It was also an attempt to prevent the player from scoring a goal which is considered a tactical foul. Thank goodness it happened outside the box." I had to explain then about fouls in the box and PKs which was actually a good teachable moment and took my mind off of being upset about the red card.
Suddenly an opposing player went down while we were making a run to the goal. He crumpled, rolling on the field in agony, yet play continued. My student rose to her feet in deep concern and wondered aloud why no one was doing anything. I had to explain the tactic of injury. I assured her that the player was just fine, and collapsed in the hopes of slowing down or stopping our team's rush to the goal. Sure enough, when this fallen comrade was completely ignored, he leapt to his feet and rejoined his team's defense. Welcome to soccer! "How does the referee know when an injury is real or fake?" I felt like Master Po with my "Grasshopper" or Yoda with Luke Skywalker ("much to learn you still have. . . .") "Years of experience,"" I responded. The words were barely out of my lips when Robbie went down, and I jumped up. "What happened?" I had forgotten to add that mothers also know when it's real or fake. Robbie's injury let me explain the substitution rule because he went out and no one came in for him. "If they sub for him then he is out for the rest of the game. So they are going to see if he can come back in." She looked confused, "But if he's injured, then wouldn't an uninjured player be better?" That did sound reasonable. How to explain without sounding vain about my child? I opted for the "it's early in the game and the coach doesn't want to start subbing too soon." I don't think she bought it since again having nine players on the field while waiting for a possibly injured player to step back in didn't seem logical. She was learning, as we all have, that soccer often defies logical explanation.
My pupil also noticed in the waning minutes of the game that our team seemed to have more players up top. So I got to explain about 4-4-2, 3-4-3, and other formations that coaches choose. We had been using a 4-5-1 formation, so when we went to 3-4-3 the bus driver noticed the difference. And for once my reasoning seemed logical. We were behind and needed to score, so we put in three forwards and four midfielders to push for some goals. We lost the game, but the driver announced that she'd had a good time. So had I.
Parents should take every opportunity to educate themselves about soccer, which includes helping one another out. If your child stays with the game, you'll need to be able to keep up with the complexity that grows at each level. Roughness of play increases, so we have to temper our upset when our little ones get knocked down. Defenses improve, so we have to accept that we won't be seeing those long runs down the field by our darling player. Speed of play increases, so we have to adjust how we watch play unfold. The field gets larger, the goals do too, the substitutions get tighter, the travel increases, things are always in flux, and so we have to get smarter and adjust. Youth soccer gives us the opportunity to all be neophytes and to all become experts. While I would never discount the joy of watching our children play, I also would encourage parents to talk to one another in order to learn the game. The more I understand the more I love the sport. I partially exercise that enthusiasm by sharing what I know with others and engaging in conversation about the game whenever I can. I'm certain my sons would cringe hearing some of what comes out of my mouth, but I'm also certain they'd be pleasantly impressed with how much their mom knows. I can't coach the game, I certainly can't play the game, but I can engage a fellow traveler so we can educate one another about our journeys. How else do you get those insights that make the trip special?