Monday, September 29, 2014
Back in the day, when the boys were first starting in soccer, Smash Mouth released the song “All Star,” whose chorus announced: “Hey now, you’re an All Star, get your game on, go play.” Even though the song was actually about rock musicians, the beat and the chorus fed right into the pre-teen boys’ sense of “go get-em.” We’d crank the car radio up with the bass on high so that the steel doors shook, and we’d sing at the top of our lungs bouncing to the beat. By the time we hit the field parking lot, the boys were ready to take on any opponent — pumped up and ready to strut their stuff. I doubt the ritual had any real effect on wins and losses, but it sure was fun to watch the cars around us as they stared at the Rockmobile and the cavorting inhabitants.
Silly traditions like that make the game so much more fun and an experience rather than just an event. Any time I hear that song, I’m transported to the Toyota Sienna (which we still own) and the joy of a great fall day stretching out in front of us that included soccer matches, raking leaves, and upsetting the neighbors as the car woofers assaulted the air around us. I know I’m always going on about the game being fun, but because these years last such a short time, it’s important to pack in as many memories and joy as we can. Too soon soccer can become a business with goals that aren’t made on the field. Stressing out over state, regional and national championships, making the high school varsity team, getting recruited by a college, even moving on to pro quickly overrides the fun part of any youth sport.
I want to encourage all parents to create a game plan for those Saturday outings rather than just getting to the match on time and then heading home. Use soccer as the backdrop for family memories. For example, just down the road from our club’s fields was a farm stand. Every October they would dress it up for Halloween, complete with a corn maze, pumpkin patch, fun animal rides, and caramel apple making. We’d plan on going after one weekend’s matches and just have a blast doing all the activities. When I look at the pictures from those outings I have to laugh because there will be Robbie riding a camel in his soccer uniform and Bryce triumphantly emerging from the maze, his arms in a victory pose revealing his team jersey logo. Those pictures document not only the boys’ growth, but the evolution of their uniforms.
The 50’s-themed drive-in in the next community north of us would close for the winter, so we’d always make one last pilgrimage after a soccer game. We all got chocolate shakes — the really thick kind made with four scoops of ice cream — cheeseburgers, fries, and one order of cheese curds (it is Wisconsin, after all). That evening, mixed with all the grass and dirt stains on their uniforms, I’d have to pre-treat the splotches of chocolate shake. Occasionally the stains wouldn’t all come out, so as they ran on the field there would be a subtle reminder of last weekend’s adventure.
Getting to indoor soccer in the winter was an adventure in itself due to slippery roads, blizzards, and the long distances to the facilities. We could go by freeway, but that wasn’t as fun as taking the back roads where we could see plenty of wildlife. We’d play animal bingo with some pretty unusual choices like turkeys, donkeys, and foxes. But someone always managed to win before we got to the facilities. The route also included a “Hobbit House” that someone built long before the Peter Jackson trilogies. It was a bit of a distance off the road so everyone had to stay alert to locate it. With a shout of “Hobbit” we’d all peer out the window and “oooh” and “aaahh” over the architecture that was really detailed and charming with a thatched roof and partially constructed into a hillside. We talked about maybe going up to the door one day to ask for a closer look, but we all chickened out every time we passed.
Traveling to tournaments, we tried to find some ways to make it even more of an adventure. When going to St. Louis, we took a longer route through Illinois so we could go to Metropolis, the home of Superman. There’s a giant statue and a great little park where we had lunch and a collectibles shop that was dark, musty, chaotic, and the perfect spot for young boys to explore. I can’t remember what they bought, but they had $5 each and spent nearly an hour sorting through comic books, action figures, weapons, and toys before settling on their “find.” Locating off-beat destinations became a family obsession with each person trying to outdo the other with the bizarre and the entertaining. We have seen chickens playing tic-tac-toe, a wildlife park dedicated to small exotic animals (like a capybara) where petting and/or holding was encouraged – including the snakes and reptiles. We visited, but did not sit in, the world’s biggest rocking chair, and let odd creatures scale our arms and hair at an insect zoo. Today, with the internet so detailed, finding these little treasures is less time-consuming, but fun to research nonetheless. It’s also a great geography lesson that the kids learn as they look along a route for something fun to do.
Making a “game plan” helps include every family member in the occasion. It can be difficult when you have two, three, even four kids spread out across your area each with his or her own match. Yet that’s what makes a plan so important and special. It’s a way to gather, share the various plays of each game, and focus on something for the family to do together rather than only the dispersal of the members across different soccer fields. You can plan a hike, go fishing, fly kites, picnic along a river, canoe, take in a movie, go to a trampoline park, and even paint some pottery. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination. You don’t have to break the budget either as there are terrific fun activities that cost nothing or nearly nothing. We once spent an afternoon hitting two buckets of golf balls at a local driving range. All we had to pay for were the balls, which were $5 a bucket, clubs were provided for free. Since the boys took forever to line up their shots, the buckets lasted over two hours. Again the photos of that outing show the boys dressed in their soccer uniforms.
I’m not suggesting that every game has to be the portal to an extraordinary day. Certainly, we have lots of things we need to take care of at home that don’t allow for extended excursions every weekend. But you can still make some special memories with a favorite song or track of songs going to and from the field, playing car games, stopping on the way home for an ice cream or fruit from a roadside stand, bringing signs to the game, or spraying the kids with silly string as they exit the field. It’s really easy to add a bit of pizzazz to the routine. For a Halloween game, the players all sported orange hair thanks to a mom who brought a spray can of hair color. Few if any of us remember who won, but we all remember the hair. Washable tattoos can be fun — although some parents may object so check first. But lining up to receive your “warrior” tattoo before a match can be a lasting memory and a Kodak moment.
Soccer matches should be fun unto themselves, but spicing them up a bit gives them the added pleasure of being a singular memory occasion. I have four kids with a big gap between the first two and the second duo, so I learned from experience how fleeting the time is when they welcome magic. All too quickly they get jaded, hanging out with cool friends who couldn’t be bothered riding a llama. Seize that magical time with both hands and enjoy it while it lasts. You’ll have lots of joyful, memory-filled experiences all through their lives, but that really young age, when life is so wondrous and unfathomable doesn’t last long. Creating memories during that time might seem overwhelming with all the day-to-day demands of just getting homework done, laundry finished, carpool run, sports and hobby schedules, and sleep. So piggy-backing some adventure on the things you already have to do, like going to a game, can make those minutes blossom into a special memory and maybe even a series of photos with your kids in uniform.