Monday, January 25, 2016
It’s a special kind of delight to watch our youngest players in their first games. They have such an eagerness, abandon, and audacity it’s impossible not to share in the giddiness. Despite all admonishments that scores and wins don’t matter, we can’t help posting the picture of Lucy nudging her first goal into the net as we quietly cheer “yay” on the sidelines. We form parent tunnels for the kids to run through after a game and provide some nutritious and special treats. In those early years, we have no judgment and no expectations. Somewhere along the way, that all changes. We become more involved in improvement, success and rewards. Until that shift arrives, there is something truly magical about youth sports, a magic I relive through great memories.
We went out to dinner as a family last weekend, a crowded and popular Mexican restaurant that played loud music along with serving its excellent food. The lone TV above the bar was showing a soccer game even though college basketball was in full swing. The evening led to lots of amazing memories spurred by all the sensory elements of the outing. I was in heaven. The soccer game alone initiated a raft of recollections, but when Smash Mouth’s “All Star” blared over the sound system, we all perked up. That was the song we played at top volume on our way to games and practices so the boys could get pumped up. They were playing recreational soccer, and so keen on the experience. The song would play and they’d bounce around in the car, shouting out the words, getting ready for “battle.” That night as the song’s familiar lyrics and melody reverberated the boys reenacted their exuberance, much to the delight of the other diners. To see that old joy on their faces took me back to the years when soccer was simple and they played just for the fun of it. The game airing across the room elicited lots of comments both about the skill of the players in the game and the deep idolatry they had had for professional players when all they had were faint dreams of attaining that level of adulation. They reflected on the fact that their dreams then were both silly and significant giving them both fantasy and goals – the former ethereal wishes and the latter solid objectives. Even the food added to the memories. We had a favorite restaurant we would stop by after practices. Tuesday night was Mexican specials, and the boys usually had practice on Tuesday, so we ate a lot of south-of-the-border treats over time. There were always only two or three choices that changed weekly, so we ended up eating a wide variety of delicacies, which ultimately informed our tastes that night at the restaurant. After years of soccer being a job for the boys, the sport was suddenly returned to that light-hearted romp that kept us all grinning.
The cliché of course is that the years of childhood are fleeting. Speaking as the mother of four, I can attest to the truth of that statement. Looking back at photographs, hearing a song, driving by a youth game, smelling the mustiness that mimics the indoor arena, tasting the same pepperoni pizza, all bring back memories of those early years. We need to keep those moments alive for as long as possible because they are so joy-based. As the boys progressed in soccer I do remember the big wins, devastating losses, significant saves, and powerful goals, but as they grew older and played on more select teams we began to lose the memories based solely on moments untethered to outcomes. I cherish those reminiscences because they can be appreciated by anyone whether or not they understand soccer, and those anecdotes don’t involve any hint of bragging or sour grapes. At one tournament in Florida we had three teammates traveling with us. During one long rain delay, we holed up at a funky restaurant that had a really unusual menu. We challenged our sons and the three teammates to eat at least three bizarre foods, which included alligator, frog legs, rattlesnake, catfish, pickled pigs’ feet, pork scrapple, and chitterlings (pig intestines). We ordered one serving of each for the table and then watched as the boys picked and grimaced through the plates. It was a wonderful hour of laughs and some discoveries, such as chitterlings smell awful but actually taste pretty good. In the end, two of the boys just couldn’t manage three trials although one boy put several choices up to his lips and then chickened out. I don’t remember any of the matches we played that tournament or even if we placed at all, but I definitely remember that afternoon at the restaurant. I remember the kids’ faces and comments, where they sat at the table and the décor. I have a vivid image of the Claw Machine at the door because we rewarded the boys who tried at least three delicacies with a buck to try the Claw. We left with three stuffed toys. Unbelievable. These experiences inform our pasts with delight because they spring from moments of unbridled joy.
I love watching the youngest kids cavorting on the soccer pitch. I saw a little girl who did cartwheels up and down the field during the entire game. I giggle at the enthusiasm of kids who will score goals wherever there’s a net even if it’s the wrong end or even if it’s on another field. At one game, a 6-year-old got the ball, make a sharp right and dribbling through the parents on the sidelines then skittered amongst a team on the adjoining field to triumphantly score a goal. Amazingly the kids on the invaded field broke into cheers and slapped the scorer on the back before suddenly realizing he wasn’t on their team. His coach had to go retrieve him and the ball, even as he was celebrating. Everyone was delighted, no one was angry, and people just had fun watching this spectacle unfold before them. Kids will fall on their behinds kicking the ball and bounce right up. Bryce used to always kick and fall down, and when we asked him why, he responded, “Because it’s fun.” That’s the point. Youth sports should be joyful and the memories from them shouldn’t be focused on wins or accomplishments – those things will fluctuate widely in youth sports. But precious moments of delight and abandon will disappear as they grow older because they become more self-aware, they want to avoid embarrassment, and they get more driven. When that happens we parents will see fewer and fewer of these carefree moments.
What I loved so much when the boys began to reminisce was how they focused on these nuggets of enjoyment. They remembered having somersault contests on the hill next to the field while waiting for their turn to play, much to the frustration of their coach, they remembered when they discovered the bog in the woods at the back of the big field and Bryce ended up permanently losing a cleat in the muck. They remembered the thunderstorm when they gathered under the clubhouse canopy and watched the fury happening just a few feet from them. The discussed the stupid clothing choices they made that they thought were so cool – head bands and wearing their shorts pulled down. I was glad that as time has gone by the soccer captured in their hearts is now the soccer of delight, which is what I hoped we had created – a lifetime of positive memories they could share with their future spouses, children, and non-soccer friends. Playing youth sports may turn into something more intense and goal-oriented, but it should always be based in joyfulness so when our kids get tickled by some sensory cue it will elicit a memory worthy of being embraced, relished, and repeated.