Monday, May 16, 2016
This past weekend I became aware of a fact that I knew intuitively but hadn’t really acknowledged consciously. I simply accepted it without consideration. I went to lunch with a 5-year-old soccer player named Will. He had just finished a match and thus came to the restaurant in his uniform.
The hostess greeted us and then bent down to Will and said, “Do you play soccer?” He replied with a “yes.”
As she gathered the menus and guided us to our table, she continued her interaction. “Did you just play a game? How did you do?”
Will brightened up, “Yes and I scored a goal.”
“Oh good for you.” Then she noticed his club emblem on the shirt. “My brother played for the Kickers. That’s a great club. What’s your team’s name?”
“It’s the Cobras,” Will beamed.
“Because you’re good strikers right?”
With a giggle Will sat in his seat, “I guess so.”
I was astonished. In the time it took to go from the hostess desk to our table, Will had not received validation for his sport, but had been included in a brotherhood of players and acknowledged for his good play. All because she noticed his uniform.
That’s the power of branding. We recognize how important it is for kids to identify with their favorite team and players. Kids clamor for jerseys, warm-ups, scarves and posters to make them feel part of something bigger than themselves, and to also aspire to something. Even a simple uniform can provide big pleasures and self-esteem. I learned that Saturday. The pride that 5-year-old strutted without conceit was disarming. He felt like he was the king of the world for at least one meal. I had to concede a truth I had ignored — what our kids wear can have as big an impact on their character development as what they actually do. If clothes can make the man or woman, then a uniform can improve the spirit.
When my daughters were young, they always wanted to do a fashion show after a shopping trip. They would cheerfully put on their new outfits and dance and twirl down an imaginary runway. They felt special and attractive while luxuriating in the “ooh’s” and “aah’s” from the audience, which was made up of my husband and I. Their new clothes contributed to a heightened sense of self-esteem and joy. Should any item be a well-accepted brand name, it added to the effect. We often don’t understand the allure of wearing something from Abercrombie and Fitch or Justice, shaking our heads at the prices and, in some cases, at the low quality. But those clothes are just a different kind of uniform, placing the wearer on the fashion forward team. I hated when the boys wore their pants sagging below their butts. I couldn’t figure out the allure of such a ridiculous and uncomfortable style. I encourage them not to be sheep, blindly following some trend, but my “moral” lesson fell on deaf ears. With music and sports idols dictating the style trends, the boys just wanted to be part of that lofty group. If they weren’t, they felt that it limited their social opportunities.
When I witnessed Will beaming with pride, I realized that a uniform can be an elixir of self-esteem. For the youngest players it provides an outward show of their interest and abilities. A uniform provides a catalyst for conversation, allowing young players to engage with people and to occasionally toot their own horns, which can be both cathartic and empowering, letting kids know that they are accepted and can have pride. A uniform also makes them a part of a club where they should be valued. On the reverse, leaving that club and giving up the familiar uniform can be wrenching to a young child. We may want to keep the uniform as a memento, while our child may see it as a taunt of their failure. So we need to be sensitive to the measure a uniform sends.
Uniforms can create unexpected rivalries as well. When the boys started playing, they joined our city’s recreational league. They played on a team made up of friends from school and neighbors. They practiced on our subdivision’s soccer field with parent coaches. It was a great place to start – safe among familiar peers. However, there was also a select club that a few of their friends belonged to. While the boys’ uniforms were inexpensive, bulk products without adornment other than jersey numbers, their friends had Adidas uniforms holding the club insignia, their name and a number. This imbalance created a visual rivalry that spilled over to a spoken rivalry. I could see that some of the kids felt second-class when compared to the select team members. A few years later when the two clubs joined, the bad blood made the transition difficult. Some kids moved down to B teams while some rec players moved up to A. The cohesiveness of the team was made more difficult.
Nevertheless, one of the soothing factors turned out to be uniforms. Out in public, the kids all wore the same uniform without visible distinction between A, B, or even C teams. Instead those around town saw these players as one cohesive, accomplished group. Naturally, they should be valued no matter what, but having the cache of the well-known and branded uniform gave these kids an extra public boost. All local soccer players were part of the “in-crowd” as evidenced by the jersey they wore.
Another aspect of uniforms is that they need to be maintained. We can use our children’s pride in their uniform as a means to teach them how to respect property. They can learn to spray with stain remover before throwing in the wash, to keep their uniforms folded and together in a bag, to protect their uniforms from damage and loss, and to respect what the uniform represents. We can offer a special jersey, warm-up, socks, or scarf as an incentive for careful maintenance of the uniform they have. It can be a tool for learning as well. Kids should research the crest of a professional team they support and learn the history of that club. Studying the statistics and life story of a favorite player might teach a child how to handle adversity or strive for stronger skills. Teams regularly change their uniform colors, so kids can share in the announcement of new designs. Likewise, they can participate in groups who celebrate “vintage” jerseys. These opportunities to actually learn from their uniform choices can be priceless.
As kids develop, they begin to take a greater interest in where the sport can take them. They watch college and professional teams, identify players they admire, and begin to dream about the day they might be that good. They want to feel a part of that energy and advertise their devotion, so they desire that special jersey. We’re happy to indulge them because we like that they are showing a passion for the sport and it does make an easy gift to buy. But beyond all that, kids develop a certain amount of pride connecting themselves to top teams and players. No matter where they travel, they are sure to encounter at least one other compatriot with instant recognition and connection. It’s great for kids to find this global community membership. It can extend beyond soccer into culture, politics, and travel. Sharing the colors of a favorite club or player opens up many other opportunities for our children.
Uniform can have the stigma of stifling individualism as the term implies conformity by definition. Schools hope to eliminate the competition of fashion by requiring standardized apparel, helping students to achieve some equality despite economic inequalities.
The point is to create a community that fosters inclusion without demanding a loss of individualism. Soccer allows kids to bond through passions, support, and friendship under the umbrella of shared clothing. We can further invest those uniforms with our interest and support, adding a layer of confidence to our kids’ accomplishments, by wearing spirit wear. Our children feel validated when they see us in a baseball cap or scarf sporting the team logo. We become part of their team which demonstrates our conviction in what they are doing. That simple action can do as much as our high fives after a match. It’s an evident representation of our support that extends beyond the pitch when we wear the gear to the grocery or the movies. Adding a decal to our car advertising a club alliance reveals our endorsement of both our children and their team.
Rather than limiting our children, uniforms can actually open them to a larger community where members share a specific interest but retain all the other variables that make them individuals. It may be why uniforms are called kits in Great Britain. While uniform implies restrictive conformity, kit implies something from which one would build or explore. Nevertheless, despite the term’s association with a standardized, unvarying image, uniforms don’t have to be restrictive. Even as they bind players through a common look and goal, they also allow players to go out in the world with the confidence that they are part of a supportive brother- or sisterhood. By revealing players’ allegiance both to a club and a sport, the uniform becomes a means to introduce them to a wider world of participants. When Will entered that restaurant in his uniform, he instantly became recognizable as a member of a larger citizenry. Even the age difference between the hostess and him was bridged by a shared experience revealed through the uniform. In a way, a uniform becomes a special language that thousands speak with pride.