In high school, groups were differentiated by specific characteristics. The group you were in often dictated your level of popularity, even acceptance during those formative years. There were the "jocks," the "nerds," the "brainiacs," the "beauty queens," "teacher’s pets," "theater geeks," and so forth. Students might move among groups, but there was usually one defining group for every kid. When we move on to college and/or family life, we assume these stereotypes are left behind, but we discover that based on location, economic level and education, adults tend to "herd" into fairly similar groupings. So when our children join a youth sports organization in our communities, we find ourselves on the sidelines with other parents in the same social and professional set limiting our exposure to a wider world view. However, youth sports can also be the medium for moving beyond our boundaries and finding friends and experiences that aren’t part of our usual routine.
As kids narrow down to the sport that is their passion, the clubs that cater to those talents and interests are often found far from our usual base of operation. These clubs attract the best players without regard to race, religion, economics or education. Instead of playing with the neighborhood carpool crowd, our children are now becoming teammates with kids from all walks of life. The defining characteristic of these groups is "the team." We parents have an instant connection to the other parents because we share the desire to see the squad succeed, we all have to get our kids to practices, games and tournaments, and we occupy the same sidelines as we cheer them on. No matter where we came from, for those hours every week that we participate in the team events we all share common goals.
Youth soccer has afforded our family the opportunity to learn about cultures, religions and traditions that we would probably have never come across or sought out. When Bryce was U-15, our community’s team dissolved and we had to scramble to find him a spot. As a goalkeeper, his options were limited. At his high school, a Jesuit all-boys school in Milwaukee, he played on the soccer team and through that connection had a teammate invite him to join his team, which was one of the many ethnic clubs found in the city: The United Serbians. I barely knew where Serbia was, much less its history and social structures. The soccer field was on the grounds of the local Serbian Orthodox church that also held a social club. Dozens of weathered enthusiastic old-time players came to every practice and game, speaking in their native tongue. They urged the team on and took every loss very personally. On significant religious holidays, we were invited to share in the celebration in the church including all the wonderful, new, dare I say exotic, foods. Many of the players’ parents were immigrants who came to the U.S. prior to or during the Yugoslavian wars in the 1990s. While I knew about these conflicts involving Bosnia, Croatia, Albania and Serbia and the charges of genocide, to hear the stories first-hand and learn of the horrors these families experienced gave me a significant window into history. Many of Bryce’s Serbian teammates had come to this country before they entered kindergarten, and they lived with limited financial means, yet their generosity both of material goods and spirit was amazing.
Robbie guest-played for the Croatian team, sworn homeland enemies of the Serbians. We got to hear the other side of the story concerning the conflicts. We also got to share in the culinary specialties of Croatia both in Milwaukee and at an international Croatian tournament in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. At the tournament there were stands selling Croatian crafts, music, clothing and national political items, such as flags and bumper stickers. The rivalries among the various Croatian teams from around the world were as intense as the rivalries between Croatia and Serbia in Milwaukee. I really enjoyed walking around the grounds, speaking to the vendors, admiring the handicrafts (particularly the lace), and learning more about this nation that again I knew existed but beyond that was ignorant of the daily lives, history and politics of the country.
Bryce had a coach from Argentina and Robbie had a coach from Puerto Rico who both had close connections to the Hispanic communities in Milwaukee. They actively recruited players to the club giving our suburban-based group a shake-up in talent and exposure. Parents of the Hispanic players would bring pots of warm food on those cold November days as the season waned. We feasted on tamales, skirt steak and burritos. Robbie’s team actually joined a Milwaukee Hispanic summer league so that we attended dozens of games in the city on fields that lacked in grooming what they gained in celebration. Food trucks, vendors selling national uniforms, family picnics during the games, and a hodge-podge of cultural experiences from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico and El Salvador intertwined to showcase the wide variety of traditions, foods and loyalties. Lumping all these nations under the umbrella of Hispanic removed the wonderful diversity of each country represented on the pitch, just as lumping all European nations as Caucasian would diminish the range of customs found in individual societies.
Beyond the cultural experiences of moving outside of the local soccer club, we came in contact with people in careers as diverse as any working population. Our town is primarily white-collar professionals, so although one father might be a broker and another mother a professor, their overall experiences were similar financially, politically and socially. As our sons became more involved with clubs far outside the boundaries of our community, we came in contact with a wide spectrum of labors: mechanics, utility and factory workers, gardeners, farmers, salvage proprietors, even a rodeo rider. Their discussions about what they encountered during a work day gave a richer perspective to what we do in building our lives, our communities and our nation. Things I had taken for granted I found others had no experience with while on the other hand I had missed out on some really interesting activities in which I now had the chance to participate. Through our contacts with these families we found not only great plumbers, landscapers and mechanics we could trust, but friends we might never have approached.
Finally, youth sports, and youth soccer in particular, take you to places you might never visit otherwise. We’ve played in the middle of Amish country, faced teams made up of American players with significant but rarely experienced cultures such as Sikkh and Hmong, participated in local celebrations involving things like tractor pulls, rodeos and music, took in museums dedicated to community events and history, such as windmills or factory work, and played against national teams from countries as diverse as Trinidad-Tobago and Mexico. Bryce even played against the British Royal Navy team. As we traveled to more than two dozen different states, we learned about our geography and our national cultural fabric. Taking a vacation to a luxury Jamaican resort is a lot different than playing in Jamaica against a Jamaican club. We got to move outside our suburban or urban or rural cocoons to make discoveries about people, their occupations, their lifestyles and their culture just by participating in soccer. We sampled unusual regional cuisine that ranged from alligator fritters to elk steaks to yak milk cheese. And we often shared those meals with teammates that came from diverse backgrounds offering us the opportunity to experience these foods for the first time together and reveal our reactions. We learned local histories and walked through neighborhoods with very different architectures. Moving through varying climate zones, we’ve gotten to discover different flora and fauna and how those affect living decisions for residents. We’ve been invited into the homes of families in far-flung tournament destinations, sharing our love for soccer while learning about the differences which distinguish us.
We may not always choose to step outside our comfort zone, but youth soccer can literally "boot" us into new worlds. I consider myself well-educated and well-travelled, yet I am constantly amazed by how little I have actually had the privilege of experiencing. When we pull into a new city, or welcome a new team member, or share a religious or ethnic holiday with teammates, we make the special discoveries that broaden our thinking and introduce us to new adventures. I certainly encourage families to expand their horizons during this short time that your children are participants in a sport with global involvement attracting people from all walks of life.