Monday, April 25, 2016
I had my annual eye exam, which isn’t really the point of this blog but comes as way of explanation. I had to have my eyes dilated, so while the drops took effect, I was handed a copy of the large print Reader’s Digest in the meantime. I don’t usually read that magazine, but I’m glad I had it thrust at me. There was a contest for humorous family anecdotes, and the winner struck me as encapsulating so many of our collective youth soccer experiences. A father took his son to soccer practice, and for the second week in a row, he was the only player on the field. Frustrated, the father told his son to tell the coach that this was unacceptable. The boy rolled his eyes at his dad and stated, “He’ll just say the same thing he said last week.” “Which was?” “Practice is now on Wednesday, not Tuesday.” I’m positive we’ve all been there in some form or another.
I’ve often watched a coach call together her team. She kneels down with all the young, earnest players listening intently to every word as she carefully explains the tactics the team should execute. They all nod agreement as the coach rises, claps her hands, and says, “Let’s go.” The team scatters like dry leaves swirling chaotically around the pitch and immediately lose all sense of order, direction and purpose. The coach tries to stay positive, but she is obviously frustrated. The problem is that those clear instructions weren’t really clear. Without the context of experience and maturity, telling kids to stay goal-side, check to, and give and go has all the clarity of a foreign language spoken backwards. We’re lucky if kids shoot the ball in the right goal. Developing a language that kids will understand, remember, and use when playing soccer becomes the predominant part of any coaching. The task is complicated by short attention spans, an inability to comprehend the importance of any discussion, and the dependence of English on idiomatic speech.
All too often, reason gets lost in translation from the kid’s eye view to the adult’s. It’s not just that kids are by definition irresponsible or naïve. It’s really that they live in a different contextual world than we do, and they are bound to literal translations in more ways than we are. Over the years we’ve come to understand the subtleties of idioms and allusions while our kids take them at face value. When a child says she can’t find her favorite toy, and a father tells her, “Look hard. Leave no stone unturned,” he shouldn’t be surprised to find her in the yard picking up rocks. A coach who admonishes his U-8 team to “step up your game” might find all his players marching on the pitch. We take for granted that the concepts we understand are the same for our kids. That boy in the anecdote probably thought “Okay the team is showing up on Wednesday, but my dad brings me on Tuesday, which annoys the coach but that’s how we do it.” Or he might just have forgotten to let his father know about the change because one day is as good as another in his limited experience with time. We adults can think we’re making ourselves clear, but the clarity is definitely in the eye of the beholder.
Consider some of the idioms we use every day and how easily they could be misinterpreted by a young player. The phrase, “hang in there” could end up confusing players who’ve been told not to swing on the goals. Encouraging kids to “go the extra mile” might have them in tears thinking they have to run another mile. How about telling a player “In the long run, you upped your game?” Does that mean they have to run a long time? Is there a downed game? Are they only good when they are running? Tell a team proudly that they should win their game “hands down” might mean they think they have to keep their hands at their sides. How confusing is it to tell a team they lost because they dropped the ball, when none of them picked it up except the goal keeper who’s supposed to pick it up and then drop or throw it? Discussing how a team should regroup by telling them to go back to square one will leave them befuddled since there are no squares to return to. If we chastise a player by telling him he was caught with his pants down, we shouldn’t be surprise to see him clutching at his shorts. Urging a player to hit the back of the net might find him behind the goal. We can’t be surprised when telling a team at half time that they started the game on the wrong foot that they all raise their hands to find out which foot they should start with. At the end of a tough loss, a team is told they have to face the music. The problem is that no music is playing.
It becomes worse when we mix sports idioms, which are confusing on their own and even more so when paired with soccer. When a team hears from a coach in June that they are “skating on thin ice,” we can’t expect them to comprehend what is being said. If the coach asks his team who is losing, 3-0, if he should “throw in the towel,” they have no idea how to answer appropriately. A pep talk before a game where the coach tells her squad that their commitment will be tested because this is where the “rubber meets the road” only leave the kids wondering what rubber (the ball perhaps) and why hitting a road. Encouraging a team to go for the whole nine yards will probably leave them wondering where those yards could be found on the pitch. Admonishments to come out swinging can be interpreted to use one’s fists rather than to give it one’s all.
We take for granted that everyone will understand certain words, phrases and instructions, but for young players, that’s not always possible. Kids take things very literally until they learn the subtleties and nuances of language later in their development. Language is difficult to learn, but we also have to remember that just because we know the common sense aspects of life, our kids may not. If a coach tells them information, they don’t understand that parents don’t learn the information unless the kids pass it on. Parents may have to look through notes stuffed in a backpack for information. Just because a kid knows how to tie her shoe doesn’t mean she knows how to lace it. Teaching our children how to do laundry involves lots of taken for granted moments like separating laundry, water temperatures, amount of soap, and what to line vs. tumble dry. It took a few pink-tinged undershirts and shrunken sweaters for the boys and I to figure out that they had no clue about what I intuitively knew. Something as simple as putting the lid on the blender before you turn it on isn’t innately understood by our kids. Flushing a paper towel down the toilet doesn’t set off mental alarms to a 10-year-old (or even a 14-year-old as we discovered the hard way). There are dozens of times a day that parents realize their kids just don’t get it, and the situations may range from running with scissors to sticking a fork in the toaster to putting batteries in backwards. It’s a wonder kids don’t burn down the house or blow up the microwave (as our daughter did quite spectacularly) by heating up a burger wrapped in foil. Life is filled with intangibles that can only become known by either instruction or experience, and often kids require both.
In this complex world of electronics we often think our children understand them better than we do. However, that fact only seems to be true where games or social media are concerned, and even then they use poor judgment because they can’t conceive of the far-ranging consequences. Otherwise we have to understand that our kids enter this world as blank slates that have to discover how things work, what words mean, and what consequences there will be going forward. We can’t assume anything when it comes to a child’s understand of the world. Nevertheless, it’s difficult not to make assumptions because we’ve already internalized the meanings and the behaviors. We get surprised regularly. That surprise has been the basis of Art Linkletter’s show Kids Say the Darndest Things and half of the America’s Funniest Home Videos and YouTube moments. Just a few weeks ago a viral video showed a 3-year-old boy freaking out because the GPS announced “bear right,” and he thought they faced imminent danger. Our children’s confusion can be both frustrating and entertaining. It’s best if we can keep a sense of humor when our kids react with total bewilderment or wrong-headed behavior, because it will be a while before the fog lifts.