What My Daughter Isn't Getting From Soccer
I’ve always had a distaste for people who say that sports aren’t important. Okay, I agree that there are more pressing issues that warrant our attention – like world peace and curing cancer – but just because some things are life-and-death important, it doesn’t mean that other things can’t also be important in their own ways.
The detractors only see sport as a recreational activity… a group of people chasing a ball around a field. They only see it as a measure of skill – a game. To them it’s just a leisure activity and they conclude that our time is better spent elsewhere. These people, most of them have never committed to or even played a team sport, so they only see the surface. They only see the game. They don’t see everything that went before it. They don’t understand the story of each individual participating in that game. They don’t understand the real benefits that people get from playing sports, particularly team sports. Yes, sometimes a game really is just a game, but sometimes, it’s so much more.
Lots of people have written about what they get from soccer. I’m going to spend today turning that inside out. My daughter doesn’t play soccer. She doesn’t play anything actually. Well, except the drums and a clarinet. But as for sports, she’s just not interested. Izzy dabbled in soccer a few years back, but her interest soon waned.
I hated that she stopped playing. I wondered if maybe there actually was a value to being one of those parents who forced their kids to play a sport. Make them play long enough and eventually they’ll just learn to love it. But I had made up my mind that I would never be that father. And as a guy who took a hands-off approach, let me tell you what my kid isn’t getting from soccer.
The other night I was helping Izzy with her algebra homework. In the not-so-distant future, having me as a math tutor will be as helpful as hiring a giraffe to teach her piano. But for now, Izzy’s class is still pretty close to algebra’s starting blocks, so I’m not totally useless.
Izzy and I were looking at a word problem that we had to translate into an equation. We were tinkering around with it for about three minutes before Izzy exploded with, “I don’t understand this! I’m just going to ask my teacher tomorrow!”
I tried talking her down. I told her we could figure it out. She wasn’t having it. She insisted that she didn’t get it. Frustrated, I spouted off, “Of course you don’t get it. You’re not even trying!” Well that didn’t go over so well and the eruption moved into full steam and Izzy stormed off.
I was pretty irritated myself, so I stepped outside for a breather. It gave me a chance to settle myself and rationally evaluate the situation. This is what I came up with:
My daughter has five math problems and has quit before finishing the first one because it didn’t come easy to her. That’s unacceptable. There are three variables that have to be represented in the equation, and they’re giving us two of them. Surely we can just plug things in different spots until the equation makes sense.
I called Izzy back to the table and told her we were going to figure it the heck out. I pretty well guided her through the first problem. Then she was ready to quit again on the second one. I showed her how similar the second problem was to the first problem and as we got about halfway through, suddenly the light bulb went on and from that moment forward, my daughter no longer needed my help to finish her homework. I gave myself a pat on the back for superior fathersmanship in defusing a hostile situation, but the whole thing still bugged me. I mean, she just plain quit. And this wasn’t the first time. Over the past year or so, there’s a pattern that’s starting to reveal itself. When there’s something she doesn’t want to do, she finds 101 excuses as to why she can’t do it. It’s driving me mental because I know she’s full of crap and that she’s just being lazy. Instead of digging into anything that requires more effort than summonsing Siri, she’s just so damn content to quit. Believe me, there are few things in this world I am more diametrically opposed to than quitting. And my own daughter is getting better and better at it.
She threw in the towel after three minutes of math! Who does that? It’s so far out of my nature that I can’t even process it. But then again, Izzy and I have two very different backgrounds.
A few months back I was road-tripping with a very successful businessman who makes an unholy amount of money. He told me that he prefers hiring college athletes into his organization. I said, “Of course you do. Who wouldn’t? Athletes don’t think there’s a problem they can’t solve by working harder.” My daughter’s math meltdown reminded me of that conversation. It also reminded me of my biggest regret. Izzy doesn’t play a sport, and I know it’s partially my fault.
There was a time when Izzy played soccer. She played for two seasons when she was eight and nine. Her first season was pretty good, pretty enjoyable. Then for a reason I can’t remember, we moved to a new league. Her team was a group of really good kids who just didn’t happen to be very good at soccer. They won a single game that season, but that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that soccer practice just wasn’t any fun.
God bless the guy who coached. He had no soccer background, but if it weren’t for him, there wouldn’t have even been a team. He was a very nice man. Unfortunately, like a lot of other very nice men who volunteer to coach, he had no idea what he was doing in terms of teaching the game of soccer, and certainly not in a way that would keep it fun for nine-year-olds. He was trying to teach the game while learning it himself (he literally brought a book to practice), and he fell into the same holes as a lot of parent-coaches, such as focusing on field organization, throw-ins and set pieces instead of developing a passion for the game. That’s what a lot of rookie coaches don’t understand… that players won’t develop a soccer mastery without first developing a soccer passion. At that age it’s not about winning; it’s about running sessions that are so enjoyable that the players can’t wait for the next practice.
Practices were held once a week and started while I was still at work. Occasionally I could scramble from the office and get to the field in time to catch the last 15 minutes of the session. Once or twice I was able to attend an entire practice. It didn’t matter. By the end of the first session I knew that we were in trouble. The session was dull. Every session was dull. Nine-year-olds are easily bored, and if you can’t keep them entertained, they’re gonna lose interest. Izzy lost interest. Forever.
When I became a father, the one thing I was sure of was that I wanted my daughter to play a team sport. Not because I wanted her to be athletic, but because I wanted her to be an athlete. I wanted her submerged in the values of team. I wanted her to learn teamwork and accountability. I wanted her to experience the satisfaction of working really hard for the greater good. I wanted her to learn to stand up and compete. I wanted her to learn how to respond to pain – both physical and emotional. I wanted her to learn that getting a bloody knee isn’t a tragedy and that when she gets knocked down she can get the hell back up. And I wanted her to develop the same animosity I have for the concept of quitting.
I knew we were in trouble. I knew she wasn’t getting any of those things and there was almost nothing I could do about it. My dream of raising a daughter who loved being part of a team was disintegrating and I was watching it happen. It was an almost comical irony. Here I was, a guy who was more than qualified to help, but who couldn’t get to one soccer practice because of another soccer practice. While my daughter was lurching through her training session, I was coaching college kids.
I hoped that being surrounded by college soccer players and going to our matches was enough to keep her interested in playing the game. It wasn’t. I’d hoped that all the time she spent with the injured players – the ones who had to endure months of physical therapy – would instill in her the value of the long-term investment. It didn’t. Izzy’s propensity to bail at the first sign of adversity isn’t limited to math. As soon as something gets difficult, she’s looking for the exit. And worst of all, I have no idea how to fix it.
There are very few activities in life that can teach you how to handle adversity without having to experience actual, tragic adversity. Sport is one of them. Soccer is one of them.
When I was nine I joined a travel team called the Hamilton Hurricanes. Our second tournament was the Thanksgiving event in Arlington, VA. On the day of our final game, it was freaking freezing. It was like North Pole cold. We literally played that game in the early stages of a blizzard. Snowflakes the size of quarters were falling so fast and so thick it was hard to see. This was before the advent of things like Under Armour and guys wearing tights. We wore shorts. We were nine-years-old wearing shorts… in a blizzard! We had a center forward named Kenny. It was so damn cold, Kenny literally froze in place on the field. Our coaches noticed him not moving from the center spot as the other nineteen players ran back and forth past him. They had to go onto the field and carry him off. He was that cold.
I remember the car ride home. Me and three of my teammates were piled into the back of my parents station wagon for the four-hour trip back to new Jersey. It’s not like we got to take a nice hot shower after that game. Nope. Everyone just hopped into their cars and formed a caravan headed northbound on I-95.
I’ll never forget the four of us in the back, covered in blankets, trying to get rid of the chill. We talked about the tournament and about girls. We changed the words to whatever song was on the radio, and generally laughed our butts off. But at the same time, we were all in physical misery. It was obvious that all four of us had gotten ill. You could hear it in our voices. We each had a fever. We were all sick as dogs the next day,
I think about that ride every once in a while. It was a precursor to life as an athlete. I spent the next twelve years playing in everything from baking sun to freezing rain in degrees of physical health that varied just as widely. Between league soccer, travel soccer, middle and high school soccer, league baseball and middle and high school baseball, rarely a week went by when my parents weren’t shuttling me to a game somewhere, often hours away. I had a cut on my knee that literally didn’t heal for like three years. Every time I played, either in a game or practice, I would end up sliding on the ground and the cut would reopen. It became a joke on my team: It was bad luck if my knee didn’t bleed.
But that’s life as an athlete. By the time I was eighteen, I couldn’t tell you the last time my body had been “100%.” As an athlete, you are never ding-free. There is always some part of you that’s in pain. It’s just part of the gig. But you love the game and you love your team so you grit your teeth and you play. You do this so often for so many years that it no longer even occurs to you that pain might be an excuse for sitting this one out. Pain just becomes a part of your daily existence and you learn to push through it.
Just the logistics of being an athlete is a book of life lessons: You follow through on your commitments, even when you’d rather not. You get your homework done just so you can get to practice. Your teammates depend on you, so you’d better have their backs. You learn the discipline to stay quiet when your coach is speaking and to keep focused even when you’re on the umpteenth repetition of a drill that bores you to tears. You show up even when the weather sucks. You don’t control your environment. You only control your response. You learn to play the cards your dealt and when the cards aren’t friendly, you learn to dig in. Because that’s the only way the problem gets solved.
That whole Arlington tournament was also a precursor. Our team didn’t advance to the playoff round. That was a reoccurring theme for years to come. And every time we accumulated enough points to tie for a potential spot in the playoffs, we’d lose out on some goals-for or goals-against tie-breaker. It went on like this for years. We’d get in our cars all excited to go win a tournament, and then we’d drive home beaten. Again.
There were very few bright spots in terms of our competitiveness in high-profile events. The most notable was a State Cup run when I was eleven. We were one of sixteen teams that had advanced to the third round. Our third match ended in a draw and went to penalties. I shot third, went to the goalkeeper’s left and missed. Badly. My shot wasn’t just wide of the goal; it was wide of the six-yard box. I think only one of our shooters actually converted his chance, but that didn’t make me feel any better. I bawled for two days because, in my eyes, I had cost my team a state title.
A year later we got skunked in our own Easter tournament. And when I say skunked, I don’t just mean we lost every game; I mean we didn’t even score a freaking goal. I was twelve and my parents still had that station wagon. I know because I remember crying my eyes out in the back of it after our final game. I was so embarrassed. Hundreds of teams in all age groups played in that tournament. Teams came from around the world to play in it. It wasn’t just a big deal – it was our big deal. And we couldn’t even score one lousy goal. It was humiliating.
Then when I was fourteen, something remarkable happened, and I really don’t know why. For reasons that have never been quite clear, the Hamilton Hurricanes started winning. Not just a little bit. We started winning a lot. As a matter of fact, we started winning pretty much everything.
The first event we won was the Garden State tournament. Garden State was arguably the best club in New Jersey, and they had been clobbering us since I was nine. Then on one remarkable Sunday, we met them in the semi-final and beat them 2-0, knocking them out of their own tournament. We were the better team on that day, and no one was more surprised than me and my teammates. We had just beaten Goliath and advanced to our first tournament final. The next day we beat a club from Brick, NJ, 2-1, and we had our first trophy. At the time, it was clearly the best weekend of my life.
My dad was the assistant coach by then, and two nights later our head coach popped by our house for a visit. I was sitting on the living room sofa when he walked in. He took one look at me, laughed and said, “Look at him. He’s still on cloud nine.” I had tried to hide my stupid grin, but damned if he didn’t see right through me. I had scored some goals that weekend, including three of our last four, and I literally couldn’t shake the euphoria. I had been grinning ever since.
That team played year-round. We had travelled the eastern seaboard, failing weekend after weekend for six long years. All those years of long drives, of staying in strangers’ homes, of playing in the slop and the snow and the sleet; all of those injuries and all of those heartbreaks – now we finally had something to show for it. And some people insist that a game isn’t important. Well I promise you, that game was important to me.
I think about my life as a club soccer player and it saddens me that my daughter won’t get those experiences. She’ll never limp off the field with blood running down her shin and feel the satisfaction of a job well done. She’ll never eat lunch in a gas station parking lot with fifteen teammates, or spend an hour running her ass off in a downpour. She’ll never know the misery of missing in a penalty kick shootout or the elation of potting the overtime winner. She’ll never exert herself to the precipice of exhaustion, wake up and do it all over again the next day. She’s going to miss out on all of that. And so much more.
When you have to work hard day after day, hard work becomes a habit, and you end up with a work ethic. When you consistently step onto the field in the rain or snow or searing heat, the conditions cease to matter. When you have to work hard even when you’re in pain, you learn that pain isn’t an excused absence, that it’s just something you put out of you mind because you still have a job to do. And when you’ve been immersed in a culture like that for a sustained period of time, you stop seeing obstacles as insurmountable. Instead they become inconveniences that you will eventually overcome.
Sport offers us a lot of wonderful lessons, but I think perhaps the most important one might simply be this: Keep going. This world rarely asks us to do something that we are incapable of doing. The solution is out there. Somewhere it surely is. But the only way to find it is to keep going. Even when it’s hard; even when it sucks – you just keep going. That’s what athletes have grown to understand. That's what my time with the Hurricanes taught me.
I love my daughter more than I could ever express. She’s my best friend and the coolest kid I’ve ever met. She’s everything you could ever want in a daughter. She didn’t let me down. I let her down. Instead of being her coach, I spent my time coaching college kids. I don’t mind that Izzy’s not a soccer player. But the thought of everything she’s not getting from soccer… that’s what kills me.
Izzy’s decided that she’s going to give volleyball a try this year. I know as much about volleyball as I do about marine botany, and unfortunately, Izzy’s in the same boat, but I can’t help but hoping that this is our second chance. I hope she loves volleyball. I hope she loves it more than she’s ever loved anything. And if she does, I look forward to spending a lot of hours in gymnasiums watching my kid do something she loves, and hopefully learning some lessons along the way. No matter how it plays out, we'll just keep going.
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