Friday, October 28, 2016

Soccer Love

At the end of the day we were cold, sopping wet, and exhausted. The 3rd and 4th grade soccer team I coach had played five games over the course of 10 hours. They’d experienced soccer firsts – three penalty kick shootouts, one last second (literally) goal, and a sudden death overtime – which is a lot to throw at 8- and 9-year-old kids. They handled it all like champs, and I bet this is a day they remember for a long while.

I love soccer, have loved it for as long as I can remember. The game has been an integral part of my life from childhood onward. Soccer led me to friendships in high school and focus in college. It introduced me to places and people I wouldn’t know without it – in Europe during a brief high school tour, in Colorado when I moved there after college, and in Connemara where soccer became a comfortable connection to a place far from home.

I started coaching when my kids were in kindergarten because I wanted to introduce them to the sport. Over the last five falls, I’ve had the privilege of introducing their friends and teammates to soccer, too. Coaching is a labor of love – and of balancing various skill and interest levels, kid-sized attention spans, and parental expectations.

Sport can be transformative, and as a coach of young kids, I get to witness that transformation up close – both in my own children and in their teammates. I am fully aware that the kid who is a complete goofball in 2nd grade may morph into one of the strongest players in 5th grade, and that the one who is the biggest and most coordinated in 1st grade won’t necessarily be the strongest in 6th grade. I know that the 4th grader who has never touched a soccer ball before, but who comes to practice all season and pays attention and works really hard is going to make steady improvements.

Through soccer I get to watch my older daughter, who loves fashion and embraces femininity, transform into this tough girl who will dribble through opponents and fight for 50-50 balls against kids much bigger than she is. It is no wonder that her soccer idol is Alex Morgan, who somehow always looks as if she’s just stepped out of the beauty parlor, even as she’s burning her soccer opponents and scoring goals.

I watch my son tackle the sport with a completely different mindset, steady in the backline, confident now in taking command of a defense. Where my daughter is all bursts of speed and changing pace, my son is methodical, thoughtful, steadfast. Never one to be left behind, their little sister, whose soccer season ended two weeks ago, practices push passes against her dresser when she is supposed to be getting ready for bed. I know I could just take the ball out of her room, but I kind of love that she wants to play soccer all the time.

I have watched their friends grow through the sport, too, seen them transition from clumsy kids with too-big shin guards to soccer players who pass the ball with confidence, make moves, support each other. Saturday I got to see one group of kids overcome nerves and bad weather to play together as a team. Three times I watched five of these children step up to the penalty kick spot and take their best shots. I got to share in their relieved exaltation when they scored, and I knew their frustrated disappointment when they missed. Fifteen times, I watched our young goal keeper of the day stand, sometimes on the verge of tears, and face PK shooters from other teams.

Soccer can be a tough sport, and coaching is not always easy. It makes for sometimes hectic family life, frenzied dinners thrown together between practice and bedtime, and a week’s worth of homework crammed into non-soccer days. I spend more time thinking about the teams I coach and their young players than I probably should. And each year, somewhere about two-thirds of the way through the season, I wonder why I do this to myself. I think, sometimes, how much simpler it would be to just drop the kids off at the start of practice and pick them up at the end.

But I don’t think I could do that. I love the game too much. I love seeing the kids, my own included, develop a love of soccer and an understanding of how to play it. I love when a 1st grader tells me she’s done her soccer homework, and when a 3rd grader proudly shows off his new goalie gloves, and the smile from the kid who always says thanks at the end of practice.

Saturday, our team lost in the finals of the annual Halloween Cup on our home field. We were cold and wet and bone-tired. But I think the kids felt a sense of accomplishment at making it so far. As I watched these young soccer players disperse into the pouring rain of a darkening night, huddling under umbrellas held by their faithful fans and climbing into warm cars, I felt proud of their growth over the season and their perseverance through a long day. And I felt lucky to be their coach.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the October 28, 2016 edition of the Littleton Record.

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