Monday, September 22, 2008
The home team scored two own goals, three players had to be carried off the field, one player lost his jersey, there were no referees, fans crowded the sidelines, and the coaches spent the entire game micro-managing the action. Sounds like a soccer nightmare! But welcome to the world of U6 soccer where mayhem ensues, pig piles rule, sidelines are meaningless, and fun is had by all. Where else would a player circle the field getting high-fives from all for scoring a goal against his team? Where else would a player stop in front of the goal box mid-dribble to adjust his shin guards before shooting the goal? Where else would a player frustrated by not being able to kick the ball out of a scrum of participants pick up the ball and place it in a more advantageous spot then kick it? Where else would a player run off the field in the middle of a play because he had to go to the bathroom?
I had the pleasure of watching my four year old grandson, Archer, and his team of four, five, and six year olds. Archer's team was the Orange Magic – a name Archer suggested undoubtedly based on the color of the jerseys and his uncle Robbie's club team. Teams played on a field so small it couldn't accommodate the spectators along its short sideline. But parents politely accommodated one another. Rather than team benches, each team spread a blanket out where the kids lounged. Because of the range of ages, there were definitely varying levels of ability. Yet every kid played an equal amount without regard to skill or outcome. The Orange Magic's top scorer had four goals: two for the Magic and two for the opposing team. After the first own goal, the coach asked the team which net they should score in, and in unison the team stretched out their arms, pointed their fingers and indicated the goal ahead of them. Ten seconds later they received the ball, turned around, and fired into the opponent's goal. Then dutifully pointed the right direction when the coach again inquired which net was theirs.
Sometimes when they dribbled out of bounds, the coaches stopped the play and had them throw the ball in. But usually the spectators crowding on the sides kept the play from going too wide, so play just continued regardless of lines. Each team had two coaches on the field trying to maintain some sense of order, but for the most part they were reduced to shouting, "No hands" and "Turn around." Despite all the chaos, everyone was having fun, except for the occasional tears for losing the ball, or falling down, or being kick accidentally. No one understood when the coaches asked, "Do you want to come in or stay out," since "in" and "out" were cloudy concepts based on understanding what sidelines meant. So it took some time to figure out whether or not a player would sub. In the meantime action would continue with a varying number of players on the field.
The parents and coaches spent most of the game laughing and cheering. I only observed one parent intent on making his little player rise to a higher level by discussing his play with him and coaching from the sidelines. But after the kid left the field to turn somersaults, the parent backed off. The game ended when the coaches said, "One more goal." We got to watch five or six runs up and down the field before a goal was finally scored. I have never laughed so hard with joy at a soccer game. Everyone declared his team the winner which was perfect because we were having too much fun to keep track. The one thing the players did manage to do with perfection was form the line to shake hands after the game and then head to the right spot to get their after game treat.
Last night I attended Robbie's high school game. All the players ran the right direction, didn't accidentally or on-purpose pick up the ball, dribbled inbounds, substituted without reminder or question, and no one ran off the field to the Port-A-John. All that perfection made for an exciting game, but we lost the joy of seeing kids having pure fun without any pressure to win. After the game I didn't have the same ache on my face from smiling so broadly at Archer and his buddies. Of course I cheered with pride when Robbie went "coast to coast" for a goal, out-maneuvering three defenders. Naturally I was delighted when the team was up 2-0 in the first two minutes. Without question I celebrated when his team won. But I realized something was lost in achieving the victory. Not everyone got to play, the coaches were dead-serious barking out instruction, and winning mattered – a lot. No one had the luxury of just enjoying the moment without considering the consequences of the play.
That's the price paid for evolving from "youth" youth soccer into "competitive" youth soccer. Many players want to evolve and many parents want their players to evolve. But we have to accept that we lose our innocence. I'm so glad I had the opportunity to experience and remember what soccer used to be like on a Saturday morning. I didn't need to have any more investment in the outcome of the game than cheering on all the players and enjoying the moment. Everyone should go experience again where all soccer players came from so we can recapture the unabashed freedom of enjoying the game without any agenda. It's a feel-good warmth that lasts a long time.