Friday, September 14, 2012

For the love of the game

I volunteered a year ago, when my kids were still in preschool. Really, I wanted to make sure no one else got the job. Maybe I should have guessed from the recreation director’s reaction that coaching kindergarten soccer isn’t the most sought-after position around.

So, get the job I did, and last week I made it through my first kindergarten soccer practice as coach. Actually, it was a blast. I’m not sure who had more fun – me or the kids. Between the running and kicking and giggling I threw in a few tidbits about proper passing technique and important rules like no hands on the ball.

As I see it, the point of most things when you’re 5 years old is to have fun. If soccer practice is fun, they’ll keep coming, keep learning. And someday, I hope, these kids will develop a love of the game like the one I have fostered since I was a little kid. Of all the sports I have played and watched, it is soccer (and skiing, but don’t ask me to choose one) that has held my attention and my passion for most of my life.

I grew up living and breathing soccer in a field hockey and (American) football town. No matter, soccer was my game from the first kick. One summer during high school I attended three different soccer camps. For a while, after reading that Maradona or Pele or some other huge star had slept with a soccer ball as a child, I slept with a soccer ball, curling around its perfect orb every night. When other girls hung pictures of boy bands on their walls, I put up posters of soccer players.

I spent hours in the backyard working on my juggling skills, honing offensive moves, and building up my left-footed kick until it was stronger than my right. I played through high school, then in college, going from a star on a mediocre high school squad to bench warmer and understudy on a defending NCAA championship team.

I volunteered as a media intern during the 1994 World Cup and nearly died of pure, awed happiness when I was on the sidelines for the warm-up of the quarterfinal between Italy and Spain. Four years earlier, I had watched (on television) the men’s U.S. squad qualify for the 1990 World Cup, the first time they’d made the show since 1950. That summer I watched every game I could on Univision, the Spanish language channel whose football commentator was famous for his enthusiastic and long-winded scream of “Goal!!! Goooooaaaaaalllllllllllllllllllll!!!!” I don’t understand Spanish, and some of the World Cup games were also on American networks. But those channels ran commercials during the matches, regardless of what was happening in the game during scheduled advertising breaks. And the commentators were rotten.

During my post-college years in Colorado, I played with a super fun co-ed team in summer tournaments and winter kick-arounds in an old school gym. We were pretty good on the field, and we won a few tourneys. We nearly always won the Saturday night party, too. When I moved to the west of Ireland for a summer, I was thrilled to find a women’s team comprising a variety of ages and skill levels. Regardless of our footballing ability and the result of that evening’s match, we always sang on the van ride home, our good cheer inserting joy into somber Irish ballads.

Alas, in recent years I haven’t played much soccer, but I did get out to a few pick-up games this summer. And while I don’t know all the big name players like I used to, I’m always happy to stumble across a game on television, and I watch the World Cup and Olympic matches as often as I can.

My kids watch with me sometimes, asking endless questions: Which team do you want to win? Who’s in the blue shirts? Where is the goalie? Why did she do that? We’ve set up a little field in the front yard and the kids love to go out and play there. They think shin guards and soccer socks are really cool. I hope these are all signs of the beginning of their love of the game.

After our first practice last week, which was also an introduction to team sports for many of the kids, a few parents posted photos of their kindergarten footballers on Facebook. They all looked happy, with their shin guards jutting out from skinny legs, their multi-colored cleats, their proud smiles. I hope that joy stays with them through this first soccer season and many more.

After that practice, there was a meeting for all the coaches up through 6th grade soccer. When I was introduced as the kindergarten coach, the others chuckled knowingly. They’ve moved on to refined techniques and tactics with the older kids. But they know. Most of them coached the little ones first. And they’re still coaching, moving up with their own kids, teaching them the world’s most popular game. I imagine they all do it for the same reasons that I do. For the kids. And for the love the game.

A version of this essay ran in the Sept. 14, 2012 edition of the Record-Littleton.

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