Thursday, October 26, 2017

Soccer Lessons

Remember that feeling, I told my daughter Saturday afternoon. The one of elation that came after you buried the shot and were mobbed by happy, screeching teammates. Remember that one as much as the other one: the sad disappointment of landing on the wrong side of a hard loss. Both are important.

The first time I ended up in a dog pile of happy, screeching teammates I was a freshman in college, and my soccer team had beaten a tough rival. I don’t remember the import of that game, but I’ll always remember that feeling of pure, adrenaline-fueled joy and the camaraderie that comes with being part of a team celebrating in a grass-stained, sweaty heap. That was the same season we lost to another close rival on penalty kicks. Our last shooter was our senior captain – a four-time all-American and steady as they come – and she launched the ball well over the cross-bar, sending our hopes of defending the national title with it.

You win as a team, you lose as a team. And doing either by penalty kicks is a pretty awful way to end a game. But it’s a lot less awful when you win. It took me until college to learn that lesson. Our girls, mostly aged 10 and 11, learned it during Saturday’s annual Halloween Cup after a series of five games where they dominated play – but still ended up without the coveted candy-filled trophy.

We tell our kids – in sports and school and friendships and life – to give it their all, do their best, try their hardest, and good things will come. But sometimes you can do all that and still end up on the losing end. Sometimes you don’t make the team. Sometimes the best team doesn’t win. As country music icon Mary Chapin Carpenter put it in a song: sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug.

Our girls were feeling utterly squashed after the last ball was kicked Saturday. They’d played all day with grit and heart, allowing only a few shots and no goals against them through three regular games, a semi-final, and the championship match. Yet, after a scoreless overtime and a tied first round of penalty kicks, it was the other team celebrating the win, and ours left stunned and teary-eyed.

My coaching partner and I have played a lot of soccer. We’ve felt the highs of winning big games and the lows of tough losses, and we love the game through it all. We told the girls we were proud of them, to hold their heads high, but our eyes brimmed with emotion, too, behind our sunglasses. It’s one thing to go through the disappointment of losing; it’s something else entirely to watch your kids and their teammates feel a loss so deeply.

My freshman year of high school, my team won a single game all season. But I loved soccer, loved playing, loved the team, wanted to get better. A year later, I was cut from the first club team I tried out for. I’d wanted to be on that team badly, and I was devastated. But I got back out there, practiced even harder, kept playing, and made that team the next season.

If I hadn’t been cut and felt that disappointment, I wouldn’t have worked so hard to get better, and I wouldn’t have made it onto the team the next year. Without that team, I wouldn’t have had a chance of playing in college. I would have missed a lot of soccer highs.

I was reminded after Saturday’s shootout of another, similar outcome two years ago, when another team of Lafayette girls made the finals and lost on penalty kicks. After a game like that, all you can do is cry a little, then get up and move on to the next thing. Keep practicing, keep trying, keep playing.

The girls from that game two years ago just completed an undefeated season of middle school soccer. I’d bet most of them can reach back in their young memories and recall the disappointment of coming so close to winning their own Halloween Cup, only to be defeated on the last kick. And I’d bet they all have other memories, happier ones, of scoring goals and winning games and celebrating together.

I wish I had a photograph of my daughter in that moment after she made the goal and turned around with an exhilarated leap to face her cheering teammates. I wish I had a photograph of all the girls at the end of every other game that day, when their smiles were proud and happy, when they were at the high end of emotion. Perhaps the best part of being a coach – at any level, with any sport – is seeing that look on the face of someone who has worked hard, made a breakthrough, seen effort transformed into some form of victory.

I don’t know how long these girls will play soccer, but I hope it’s many more seasons. I hope they keep playing, keep learning, keep loving the game. I hope they work through the lows to reach the highs. I hope along the way they all end up in a few grass-stained, sweaty, exuberant, celebratory heaps on the field. And I hope that’s the feeling they remember best.

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 24, 2017 issue of the Littleton Record.

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Swear Jar

The first time I heard my mother swear I cried. I was probably 12 years old, too old to be crying over swear words spoken under duress and without malicious intent. But something was obviously very bad if Mom was uttering a four-letter-word.

We were driving in the family minivan, which was front-wheel drive, through Franconia Notch in a storm blending snow and sleet, with a slick sheen of black ice glossing the pavement for good measure. Dad asked how the driving was. Mom, clutching the wheel in the dark, answered with a variation of what my kids would call “the S word.”

Fast forward a generation to children who do not shed tears at the utterance of swear words. My kids are familiar with all the most oft used four-letter words, and a few others. Partly this is because they are at that age where swear words are fascinating in their sheer naughtiness. Partly it is that my older two children are on a reading tear that progresses through several books a week, which means they have moved on to more adult content, which includes, sometimes, minor league swear words. And partly – I’m not proud to admit – it’s because their mother has a potty mouth.

I do not drop swear words into everyday conversation, but I do sometimes slip up on the language front. To stem the tide of the bad words I utter, this summer I implemented a Swear Jar.

My children think this is great fun: Mom plops a quarter in the jar every time she commits a verbal violation. (So, rarely, does Dad, as well as other visiting grown-ups who are caught by my gleeful children in adult conversation using the occasional adult vocabulary.) They think the jar will be filled in no time, and they will subsequently be rich with shiny quarters. I’m just hoping it helps me clean up my language.

Why do I cuss? It’s certainly not a product of my own upbringing, during which nary an F-bomb was dropped. If my dad uttered something so harsh as “damn,” we knew one of us was in big trouble. That evening in the car when my mom swore, I thought the world might just be ending.

I don’t remember when swear words wiggled into my regular vocabulary. Maybe it was college, or the gradual increase of swearing in movies and T.V. shows and other forms of pop culture. Probably, though, it started during the five years of my relative youth when I lived in a ski town. Or in the several years after that when I spent (and still spend) a considerable amount of time hanging out with a bunch of other ski coaches, who can toss around the swear words nearly as ably as legendarily cuss-happy sailors. I used to coach all winter with a friend who is also a fisherman, which is close to a sailor, at least when it comes to language usage.

It was in between those two eras, however, during the six months I lived in Ireland, when I first experienced cussing as an art form. The Irish have earned a reputation for their friendly hospitality, but if you spend a bit of time with the locals, you’ll find those lilting Irish voices take swearing to a level far beyond any American ski coach or sailor. They pronounce some favorites a bit differently – replacing a U with an E in one and transforming a short-I sound into a long-I in another – but the gist is the same. And they use words even I can’t bear to utter, tossing them into conversation as if they’re harmless qualifiers.

Regardless of how my potty mouth has evolved, I have made a strong attempt to restrain it since my kids arrived on the scene. Like many parents, I’ve developed verbal alternates to actual cuss words. “Son of a motherless goat!” is great when I drop something on my toe or whack my head on the not-fully-opened back door of the minivan. “For Pete’s sake,” which I may have inherited from my dad, is a good all-purpose expression of frustration. I also enjoy, “For the love of Pete,” alternately, “For the love of all that is holy.”

I am trying to be creative in articulating my annoyances, and the very presence of the Swear Jar inspires me, usually, to take a deep breath before bleeping. It is being filled much more slowly than my kids thought it would be. We’ve decided that if the Swear Jar ever does get filled up (or if I just stop needing it), we will donate that money to some local charity.

Less swearing and a bit of cash for a good cause: that sounds like a win-win, no matter how you say it.

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 13, 2017 issue of the Littleton Record.