I become *that* Dad.
Note: a version of this essay was featured in the Pete Brown Says podcast, episode 005.
I’ve been thinking a lot about soccer lately, probably because we have a Major League Soccer team here in Columbus called the Crew, and the crumby owner is threatening to move the team Austin if he doesn’t get a new downtown stadium. It’s a raw deal, especially because the crew were one of the original teams in the league and their stadium is only 18 years old, and is what’s called a ‘soccer specific’ stadium, which may be why the US Mens and Women’s national teams often play games there.
I’ve only been to a few Crew games over the year, but like any person who loves their hometown, I can work up a righteous anger for the lopsided deal that we’re being forced to consider.
But thinking about soccer reminds me that I tend to hold on to a lot of things that most people let go of. I have a hard time letting go of some things. My wife has told me this almost daily for the 23 years we’ve been married. But other people have told me this, too. Usually they are friends I have known long enough that they’re comfortable sharing this feedback with me. Lately my primary care doctor and my cardiologist have echoed these sentiments.
I seem to be holding on to a lot of things about soccer, which I’ve discovered in the process of wrestling with this particular essay. Some 15 drafts in, it’s been bloated to 8,000 words and trimmed down to 2. It’s started in one vein and finished in another. There have been tangential diatribes that have surprised and even scared me a little bit. What it’s not done, I’m afraid, is finally snap together into a tight narrative. And this interests me, because I seem to be outputting much raw content around the topic, but failing to understand what the takeaway ultimately is.
Which is another way of saying I think youth sports are more complicated than we’re willing to admit, and that I some 40 years later find myself bogged down in the mire as if I had played a game this morning and forgot it was my day to bring the juice boxes and oranges.
And when this happens to me when I write, when a firehose of verbiage is flowing but to no discernible end, I try to step out of it for a moment. I’lls ay (and often I’ll say this out loud) what is the question that all of this content is trying to answer? And I think in this case it is this: Do my kids hold on to things in the same way that I do? Are they unnecessarily burdened by repetitive memories that are triggered regularly? And will I ever be able, as they suggest, to let some this go?
And I’m going to try to answer those questions by writing about youth soccer, or “organized” soccer, as it is sometimes called, which was experiencing its first golden age in the western suburbs of Cleveland in 1980s. The leagues were many and varied — indoor and out, full of kids, in-house and select, boy’s leagues, girl’s leagues, coed leagues. It was a true boom for recreational soccer in the US.
Now my Dad, as I’ve mentioned, was coming up on 50 when I was born. And while he did a serviceable job teaching me to throw and catch a baseball growing up, for soccer, I was more or less on my own. I think he eyed the game with a veteran’s suspicion of all things European. But he still bought me cleats and shin guards and came to games and stood off at one end of the field with our little white dog Charlie on a leash. And when the tough games were done, he’d frequently pull in to the drive through at McDonalds and order up a couple of Sundays or a chocolate shake, now and again.
For most of my youth, I played what we called “in-house” soccer, which was the open-to-everyone league, with cotton t-shirts for unis and an everybody-plays ethos which, frankly, I was grateful for. But still, every spring and every fall I tried out for the Travel Team.
The Travel Team. The Travel Team. Even today, those words carry weird significance for me. It was a select team that — as the name implies — travelled to and from other western suburbs, playing against their travel teams. But it was the uniforms I truly coveted. Proper kit, those stripes. Real jerseys with coordinating shorts and socks. The goalies even had their own yellow jersey! Like in England!
I tried out for Travel Team in fourth grade, again in fifth grade, I think twice in sixth grade and then again in seventh grade, and I was cut each and every time. I would ride my bike to the tryouts, run my heart out in the 40 and work my butt off in the scrimmages, but the truth was, I simply wasn’t good enough. And a letter would arrive in the mail a week or so later to confirm this. Sometimes, my mom would try to hide the letter, but I always found it. I don’t know if they still do cuts like this today, or if they do cuts at all anymore. I wouldn’t even be able to articulate what I think about them as an adult, because my feelings are still mired in these childhood experiences, scented, as they are, with smell of stamps and wet leaves on an Early fall day.
In eighth grade, I made the Travel Team. I got my first real uniform, green and white vertical stripes with my name and number on the back. And the truth is that this reversal of my soccer fortunes was not thanks to an improvement in my game skills, but due to a fortuitous situation in which most of the really good athletes in our leafy ‘burb simply decided they were done playing soccer, and turned their focus to things such as “fall baseball” and the like. So, everyone who tried out that year made the team, and most games, we could scarcely field a side, so all of us saw serious playing time.
Meaning no offense to the coaches (at least one of whom, I’ve since learned from Facebook, has passed on), but our team, the Warriors, sucked.
We sucked hard.
While soccer may have fallen out of favor with the good athletes in our suburb, it apparently remained in good standing with the good athletes of our neighboring suburbs. I recall more than a handful of losses in the double digits. What did we expect? The team had 3 or maybe 4 players who held over from the previous year, and then the roster was rounded out with players like me: long on intention, but short on skill, kids who were persistent and hung around long enough to get a shot. I was a left wing — a striker, for God sakes — and I don’t recall taking a single shot on goal the entire season.
It was the last year I would play organized soccer.
When I had my own kids and moved to my own leafy suburb with its own youth sports leagues, I knew I wanted to be somewhat involved, but also that I wanted to get my coaching out of the way before society’s more competitive instincts kicked in. Which meant coaching a few seasons of tee-ball and a few of U5 soccer, where we didn’t keep score and doing cute things like sitting down in the middle of the field to pick dandelions earned as much applause as making an actual play.
If you don’t know, by the way, the uniform game has been seriously elevated by my generation of coaches. From age 4 on, my kids were getting real kit, real jerseys just like the ones I coveted in my youth, with their names on the back and coordinating shorts and socks. By u7, when scores start to be kept, they even had a goalie jersey, a yellow one, just like in England, although this jersey was about 20 times too big for even the biggest kid on the team.
My son played up through U7 — first grade, as I recall. I could never tell if he liked it or not, though, until the game when his coach, whose name I honestly can’t remember but whose son was a true wizard with the ball, this coach decided out of the blue in the middle of a game to put my son in goal. My seven-year-old son, heir to my clumsiness, who had not, as far as anyone knew, ever expressed even the slightest interest in playing goalie. And, as the game would quickly show, did not really know the first thing about how to do it.
The first thing about playing goal, by the way, is that you are allowed to pick the ball up with your hands. And after two quick plays in which he ran out of the box and tried to kick an oncoming shot away (two goals against, I’m afraid), I realized that he didn’t seem to know this rule. And so I did something I swore I would never do. Which is I walked down to his part of the field and tried shouting advice to him. or at him. In his general direction, as Monty Python would say.
“OK, Kiddo! You can pick the ball up with your hands. You’re the goalie! When they’re coming in, you just run out and pick that ball up.”
Certainly sound advice, but my kiddo was too far stuck in it to heed any words his Dad was shouting at him. And my wife came down and put her hand on my arm in the way she does at parties when I’m missing some obvious social cues, and said I was being that Dad, and she walked me back to where the other parents were, where we stood and watched three of four more balls get past my son, who was still not using his hands, and my rage built and built and I hissed “Why the fuck did the coach even put him out there! He’s never played goalie! Why is leaving him in there, for fuck’s sake.”
So I think it’s safe to say I was bringing my some of my own shit to this situation. Which isn’t fair for anyone, but true nonetheless. When the game was over my son ran off the field, swimming in that huge fucking goalie shirt, tears in his eyes, because by age seven, by age seven you know the fucking score, and I think he was getting his first glimpse at what it’s like when the world sets you up to fail, which — despite my rage — is what had occurred.
And so the coach pulled him aside and spoke to him, but I don’t know what was said. I only know it didn’t help, and I found myself doing another thing that I swore I would never do, which was to tell one of my kids’ volunteer coaches how to do their jobs. So as my wife took my son back to the car, I walked over to the coach and said as calmly as I could “I don’t think he wants to play goalie.” And there may have been some anger in those little pauses I put between each word, but the coach looked at me confused for a moment, and then said “OK.”
There were just a few games left that season, but my son’s heart wasn’t into anymore. He never played goalie again, but there was no more excitement about playing in the field either. Each game became, for him, was like going to a shitty job you’ve got to get through.
He was seven fucking years old.
After the last game, the team went out for pizza, and the coach called each player up to say a few words and hand them a trophy. I was sitting in the back of the restaurant with my wife and a group of Moms. When the time came, here’s what the coach said about my kid:
“If he works really hard, he could be just as good as the other kids.”
That was it.
Not even a fucking “he played with heart” or “what a hard worker” or “always hustling” or “gave 110%.” I mean, those are table stakes cliches designed for just these situations.
Now I don’t mind honest feedback, even for a seven-year-old, but shit like this suggests to me that the coach, volunteer though he may be, just wasn’t paying any attention to my kid. I was so stunned about what I had heard, and to be fair, for a moment I was not even sure that I had heard him right. But then I heard my wife hiss across the table: What the fuck with this guy? she asked.
Indeed. What the fuck with him?
He had succeeded in ruining soccer for my son, and honestly, graying the hair on my temples. And I want to give him a pass, because he was a volunteer and English was his second language, but I’m telling you, ten years later on, and I still feeling a righteous rage about it. It’s another one of those things I should be able to let go of, but I can’t, and the recollection of it brings back the anger full force. I’m OK at being a forgiver, but lousy at being a forgetter. My cardiologist keeps telling me that I have to find a way to move on, though, before my heart makes the decision for me.
Some four years later, surprising no one more than me, my son announced that he wanted to play soccer again.
“Are you sure?” I asked. “Most of those kids have kept on playing when you stopped.”
But he had playing in a pickup game at recess, and felt like he was ready. So we signed him up and at the first practice, I let his new coach know that he hadn’t played for a few years, and to let me know what we could work on at home. Also, not to put him in goal. Ever.
But the truth is, we didn’t need to work too much at home. My son was right in the middle of the mix of talent at this level, and his new coach let us know he wanted to teach fundamentals and not worry so much about winning.
This was fortuitous because our team, aptly named The Gold Team for their slick gold jerseys, did not do much winning that first year. In fact, they reminded me of my own travel team experience. They only had one or two kids with the instinct to drive the ball into the net, and everyone else at varying levels of skill, was doing their best to stay involved.
The worst part about this winless season, however, was the presence of Defense-Push-Up dad, who was so beside himself that our defenders tended to stay back on the field when we got the ball on offense that he’d spend entire halves of the game screaming DEFENSE PUSH UP!! over and over, to no avail. In fact, he simply couldn’t quite comprehend that the defense tended to hang back. He’d stop every few minutes and look at the other parents like “can you believe this? I mean, push up for god’s sake.”
We’d all avert our eyes.
And I think the coach, unlike Defense Push Up guy, knew that the team had bigger issues than whether the defense should push up, and it did seem like the games that were closer were those where the defense hung back and limited the opponents shots on goal.
Despite the winless year, my son wanted to play again the next season, so we returned, same coach, more or less the same players, same Defense Push Up Dad still unable to accept his life for what it was. And, for most of the entire season, the same results. Lots of work on fundamentals. No wins.
But on the final game of the season, against the dreaded and heretofore undefeated Blue Team, something really odd happened. The odd thing was we made it to halftime and the score was still knotted at zero. And it stayed that way deep into the second half, and the other parents began to exchange glances with each other that seemed to make an implicit agreement: if we end up with a 0–0 tie, we are going to celebrate that motherfucker like it’s 1999.
Which is to say, after two years of being on the losing end, we were ready to grab a tie and hold it high to the heavens in thanks and celebration. Defense-Push-up guy even laid off his go-to plan, sensing that it may be better, after all, to let the defense hang back.
I have a pretty good record of what happened next, in part because the next day, I had received an email from an old college friend, and in writing a reply, the whole story came tumbling out, from the goalkeeping incident back in first grade up through this very game, a tidal wave of angsty verbiage that no one in this life deserves to get in response to a simple “hey, what’ve you been up to” prompt. Here is some of what I wrote:
I did two things in public last night that I rarely do in public. I swore out loud. And I teared up. These both occurred at my son’s soccer game.
My son’s team hasn’t won a game in two years. In fact, they have never won since we’ve been on the team. We haven’t even tied. “You win some, you lose some” is simply not applicable for this group. I guess I shuld be glad that it’s been a great exercise for my son to practice dealing with losing, which is something he hates to do, but, you know, two years?.
The coach is good, by which I mean calm and positive, focused on teaching fundamentals. The team has improved over two years, but there is an unfortunate truth to athletics at this age. If you don’t have a few of the really good players, it’s really tough to turn things around, no matter how hard you practice. With my kiddo, our personal focus this year has been on playing hard to the very end — never giving up, no matter how many goals we were down, no matter how much it seems like his teammates have packed it in.
Last night, we were tied at 0–0 versus the very good Blue Team, with about 3 minutes left in the game. The Blue Team had more or less dominated the ball — having taken at least 20 shots on goal to this point in the game, but our defense played well and our goalkeeper was having a great game. Conversely, our offense had only crossed midfield once or twice, and hadn’t managed to take any actual shots.
I think every parent on our side of the field was thinking the same thing. Hold on. Just hold on. Hold on for three more minutes. We would have celebrated a nil-nil tie like we had won the Super Bowl.
So what happened?
You know what happened.
They put one in.
They put one in, and I spun away from the field and said “Shit!” to the parking lot. And I was not alone in saying this. Do you want to know what 20 anxious parents whispering “Shit” outside at the same time sounds like? So do I, but we were all drowned out by Defense-Push Up dad wailing to the heavens. I mean, that guy has no volume control.
So we flipped to ‘the Moral Victory’ script, the classic compromise. We referenced the ‘Getting Better Every Game’ page of our parenting play books. But we don’t say ‘you win some, you lose some’ any more. We stopped saying that about 6 games ago.
I have to admit that for the remaining 2 minutes or so of game time, in which, as you might expect, we did not come back to tie the game, I watched quietly, and was tearing up all along. You know, I just wanted them to have a frickin 0–0 tie after two years of 9–0 losses. Come on, universe! Help a brother out!
Some days you just freally need a tie to get you through to the next one, and if you come up short, well, not even ice cream is going to make you feel better about that
As I re-read that email, before adding it to this show, I started to wonder if I maybe wasn’t making too big a deal of things. I know my memory for these kinds of things is unusual, and a great many people have played for bad soccer teams and more or less moved on with no residue tainting their later lives. And I began to wonder what, if anything, my kiddo even remembered about that team, now that some 6 years have passed since he played. So I asked him about it. And what I learned was instructive:
First, was that, to the extent that my son even remembers this team, his main takeaway was “I think I learned not to care” about the 22 consecutive losses. And I want to believe, by this, that he’s not a hardened cynic at 16, but rather means in the grand scheme of things, all those L’s mean less and less to him as time passes.
The second is that any experience — from losing a soccer game to recording an interview with your Dad — is much better when punctuated by ice cream.
Sometimes I think, wouldn’t it have been great if his team had somehow scored to preserve the tie? Wouldn’t that provide some sort of defining moment in young life’s lessons about perseverance. Wouldn’t that be a much better story for me to tell here? Isn’t that why this essay hasn’t snapped together?
And the thing is, I don’t think it would be a better a story. I don’t think he would remember it any more or less than what he remembers now.
It would be an easier story to tell, because the fundamental change in the main characters would be obvious and uplifting, from losing to winning (or, in our case, tying). And sometimes in life, things work out this way and you have an fun albeit obvious story to tell.
But those stories, too, burn bright and fast, and are gone before you know it. They don’t settle down low on the soul, with their debris slowly becoming sludge, the way this story can. They don’t leave you with the uncomfortable feeling that the universe is by-and-large indifferent to you and most certainly to your sense of yourself. One team scored more goals than the other. And really, anything beyond that and we’re pretty much making shit up.
I’m surprised by how little control we have over the lessons our kids take away from youth sports. For as much as we’d like them to experience “hard work pays off,” or even “Win or lose, be satisfied that you did you very best,” they seem to know, inherently, that the world doesn’t always work in the way adults say it does. And despite what the grown-ups like to say, the world keeps score. Kids keep score. Hell, I’ll watch the statistics for this story closely, because it is a way of keeping score.
And somewhere along the way of all this score-keeping, we have to decide for ourselves what we’re taking away from any one experience, and how we feel about it, and what it makes us think about ourselves. I can’t tell you how relieved I am that my son doesn’t seem to carry intense memories of his youth sports teams around with him in the same that way that I do. It’s that much less baggage for him to haul around. I think my cardiologist would soundly approve.
And my hope is that what sticks with him is the memory of two seasons of working hard, and despite not winning any games, still going out for ice cream with his Dad. Or at least a chocolate shake, now and again. Bought from the drive through window that’s right on the way home.