Monday, February 08, 2010
I learned by watching. I'll admit to playing soccer while attending a German high school, but it was a coed physical education class and the main purpose of our activity was to waste as much time as possible, stay as clean as possible, and sneak out as soon as possible to a cafe. But that's also the time I began to watch soccer both on TV and at the stadium which was a short walk and streetcar ride from my apartment. In Germany impressing a boyfriend meant having a passion for or at least feigning a passion for soccer. But watching soccer had little to do with learning the rules or appreciating the tactics. Instead I simply learned the various stereotypes about the sport that my friends held: Italian players were drama queens, English players were cry babies, French players had no grit, and German players were intelligent, strong, and unfairly penalized by foreign referees.
Throughout the subsequent years I would watch a game now and again, but it was difficult to catch a game on TV when in the United States. Every four years I did watch the World Cup finals, but until I had children playing soccer I didn't make a real investment in watching or understanding the game. And youth soccer, particularly before players reach age 12, doesn't mirror the way the game is played internationally. Unfortunately, I and most of the parents I knew thought we understood the game perfectly; so well in fact that that during any game we felt obliged to teach soccer to the referees, the coaches, and our own children.
Many parents aren't students of the game. This is somewhat understandable because we are just now getting to the parental generations who have actually played soccer in large numbers. Yesterday was the Super Bowl with something like 100 million viewers, most of them Americans. There's a substantial parent contingent who regularly watches, may have played, and understands the positions and strategy of football. Same goes for baseball and basketball. But in the U.S., soccer hasn't yet arrived at that level. Nevertheless, we parents owe it to our kids to immerse ourselves in a quick study of the game and to provide an atmosphere at home where soccer is part of the regular sports viewing. Our children need to be proud of the sport they play and they need to know that their parents consider it a significant and worthy endeavor.
As my boys progressed in soccer and understood the game far better than I did, the chatter from parents became not only annoying but downright interference. When one 10-year-old girl passed by the parental hordes shouting and instructing the players, she put her finger to her lips and exclaimed, "Settle down!" That's when I realized I needed a soccer education. I bought a FIFA rule book and studied it. I also began to watch more and more games both live and on TV. We bought season tickets to the local indoor soccer team which gave me a further education and an opportunity to talk about soccer together as a family. We regularly watched EPL and La Liga games together which afforded me the opportunity to learn about individual international players and my sons' assessments of their abilities.
Knowing that a ball isn't out of bounds until every millimeter of its surface is out or the difference between a goal kick and a corner kick doesn't qualify as understanding the game. Because soccer appears to be a fairly simple game, we parents may convince ourselves there isn't much to learn. Pass the ball by kicking it down the field and then kick it into the goal. Defend by trying to steal the ball and by stopping the ball going into the net. However, there's a complex sophistication of how those actions are achieved that ultimately creates the sport that has captured most of the world's attention. Every choice made on the field has geometric outcomes leading to further options. Additionally, learning individual players and the skills they bring to the game can enhance a viewer's experience. Just as baseball managers will have the outfield shift to accommodate a batter's style and power, so too a soccer coach will adjust how a team attacks or defends based on the opposition's player roster.
I would like to challenge youth soccer clubs to offer soccer education for parents. It could build membership because if parents appreciated the intricacies of soccer they'd be more likely to encourage their sons and daughters to stay with the sport. Since many parents stick around to observe practices, it makes sense for coaches to incorporate them into the practice. Anything from a simple explanation, "These drills help players learn how to overlap," to bringing out the chalkboard and showing how a particular formation is expected to work will make parents feel less like an intrusion and more involved. Robbie had a coach who would regularly address the parents and explain what was going on. I learned so much listening to him and certainly learned to appreciate his coaching decisions since I understood better how he arrived at them. He taught me what a flat-back-four defense was by holding up four fingers and indicating how they operated together down the field.
My boys still correct me regularly when I make comments while watching a game. And they are far more educated as to players, teams, rivalries, and rankings than I ever will be. But over the years I've become much more adept at being a knowledgeable soccer mom rather than just a means of transport to a game and a nuisance on the sidelines. It also means that soccer gives our family a basis for sharing. Bryce will often come downstairs in the morning to announce the latest trades or injuries, and I am proud to say that I know who he's talking about 60 percent of the time. That's definitely progress over the last decade when my soccer familiarity consisted of Pele, Mia Hamm, and a goal is the ball in the net.