Monday, November 02, 2015
Over the course of years of playing soccer, Robbie and Bryce have been members of several teams. Each change brings a sudden break in the friendships they developed. For parents, it means we lose our comrades on the sidelines — other parents with whom we shared a love of soccer and an enthusiasm for the team. While the boys often maintained their ties to former teammates through social media, that’s generally less true for the parents. We tend to have more tenuous connections since we get scattered with multiple kids’ teams, work relationships, school parents, and our other social acquaintances that don’t involve the internet. Some of us go on Facebook, but even that requires a ridiculous amount of time to sustain. So, in general, when our kids leave one team for another, we lose contact with the parents from that team.
Last week we had returned to Milwaukee after visiting family on the West Coast just in time to rush off the plane, head north, and catch the second half of Robbie’s match. Since he was competing against a team from our hometown, I knew there would be a number of Robbie’s old teammates. I looked forward to seeing them all grown up — all that advanced facial hair compared to the baby-faced 14-year-olds I had known. The bonus turned out to be reconnecting with the parents, many of whom I hadn’t seen in nearly a decade.
One competitor’s mom had four kids in our club and so we’d had a lot of contact over a number of years. Robbie actually never played with any of her children since it was a daughter who was Robbie’s age. But the advantage of adult recreational soccer is that the team isn’t tied to a single year, so her younger son was playing on the opposing team. In my great hurry to focus on the game I didn’t notice her, and she didn’t identify me because I’ve lost a great deal of weight since I last saw her, but luckily I had to take a phone call, so she caught my voice which is apparently readily recognizable. It was special to give her a hug, and then, in that shorthand mothers develop, catch up on one another’s lives during a slow walk down the pitch after the game. I love how easily, even after a separation, we fell back into a comfortable cadence and familiarity that a shared love of the sport and our children brings. It reminds me once again about the many intangibles of my kids playing youth soccer.
It’s definitely difficult when a change of team brings a rift in relationships. It could be your child leaving the team or a teammate departing, but either one brings a separation. How can we deal with that situation, especially if there’s expressed resentment for the abandonment? That bitterness can be generated by several factors: jealousy, fear, sadness, and ambition. Each one has to be addressed differently in order to maintain those long-term ties, which may not be nurtured for years but can be restarted when the occasion presents itself. Leaving a sports team seems to be particularly difficult, perhaps because a team is more of a choice than a school, easier to change than a house or a neighborhood, and is based on mutual trust and goals. Leaving a team can be for reasons which seem egotistical or ambitious and therefore aggravating, even affronting. On occasion a player can be dismissed from a team for reasons which are usually based on ability, signaling to a family some type of weakness even failure, which is a bitter pill to swallow. Therefore, friendships may be disrupted by resentment not solely by separation. We can continue to enjoy the benefits of these relationships if we can overcome whatever bitterness departures create.
Jealousy is difficult to handle because it rises from comparisons which may not be rational. If a teammate moves to a more competitive team, we instinctively react by defending our child’s skills. How could one player gain more favor than our own kid? Jealousy leads to resentment and ultimately to rejecting people with whom we’d previously been warm and congenial. When jealousy is directed toward us that can be as difficult. We want to do the best for our player, but we also respect and like their teammates and parents. For most of us, it’s not ego that makes us seek a different team, rather our own children prompt the change through their own passion. Jealousy is less of a concern when it comes to school. Even the smartest kids rarely switch school classes. They make take a different math or science section, but they primarily remain with their group. So we tend to have less jealousy because our kids all have a secure place in the hierarchy. Nothing stirs the green-eyed monster more than seeing someone overtly succeed over our own loved ones. The best way to deal with it is to meet it head on. Before leaving a team, a player and his parents should let the squad know why they’re moving on and express their appreciation for all that the team and coaches have contributed to this opportunity. If a teammate leaves, we should express our wishes for success and a willingness to stay in touch. We never know when a player might help create that bridge to another opportunity for our own child. When we belong to a team we share a lot of special experiences and we parents may disclose some very personal details as we sit on the sidelines, so change can be seen as a divorce that has to be met with recriminations and envy. Instead we should recognize it’s a natural progression just as moving up to first chair in the orchestra would be or getting the lead in a play. We should be happy for a child’s development.
We can also feel fear when there’s a change. It can be a fear that everything will fall apart if one of the cogs goes off on its own or fear that a close connection will suffer with separation. So we often react with anger or pulling away so we can be the first to sever the bonds. The comfort I can offer is from experience and observation. Teams, even clubs, go through several metamorphoses over the years, but there is always a place for every player. Bryce’s team completely dissolved between U-14 and U-15 as players left for what they perceived were greener pastures. As a result, on the second day of tryouts Bryce was the only one who showed up. That was in June. When he began high school, he was still without a team because he had missed all the other tryouts. The good news was that club soccer wouldn’t begin until spring. From his connections with his high school teammates, he ended up being invited to play for a Serbian team a year older who was desperate for a goal keeper. It turned out to be a great year and the fees were only $150 for everything — a far cry from the $1,500 other clubs were charging. As teams evolve and change, they seem to find a way to enfold players who may have thought they were abandoned.
Losing a good friend from a team comes with a great deal of sadness. However, the benefits of texting, Facebook, Twitter, Snap Chat, and other social media outlets makes staying in touch much easier. Robbie and Bryce still connect with players from their first youth squads up through college. Robbie recently went to a Packer’s game at Lambeau Field to watch his friend, Josh Lambo, (yes that’s his name) the goalkeeper on his Chicago club team who now is the kicker for the San Diego Chargers. Through years of evolving from a national team soccer player to a pro soccer player to a college student kicker for the football team to a professional kicker in the NFL, they have stayed in touch thanks to the virtual connections available to them. When Robbie left his home town club team for the Chicago Magic, I was sad to leave several of the parents, not to mention the kids I’d gotten to know. This summer, Bruce and I went to dinner and there at the next table sat the parents of Robbie’s old teammate, Nathan. We chatted on and on, learning that Nathan was going to be married soon (impossible!) and that Linda, his mother, worked in the same ER where Robbie did. Such are the threads of friendship that aren’t broken, just stretched with a change.
We are all ambitious for our children, and that ambition can lead to uprooting and moving to a new team. That’s natural, but can be disruptive and painful. We see a team as exactly that, a group of people working together who have one another’s backs. So when our child leaves or a friend of our child leaves, it seems jarring and even a betrayal of that larger trust. Yet it happens every day, during every tryout week, during any year. Because we enter youth sports without a grand plan, we just enjoy the camaraderie. Then at some point, we begin to hear the rumblings of “that club has winning teams,” “another team has better coaches,” or “recreational soccer won’t get your kid a scholarship.” Earlier and earlier parents are buying into these observations and as a result they begin to shop around. Those of us who are simply looking for a good sports experience may find ourselves in the midst of some grand ambitions. I suggest staying the course until your child expresses a consistent passion to develop his or her skills further. Until then, enjoy the fun our kids are having interacting with one another, playing a game they love, and finding good friends in the process. Also, rest assured that if and when a team changes or our child precipitates a move, things will stay steady. They’ll make new friends, they’ll keep many of the old ones, and the connection we shared with parents will transcend time, even if the time is a decade. There’s something special about having shared the experience of supporting all the kids on a team.