I played soccer for many years growing up.
What a game. Being outside, playing on a team, the flow, the competition. I played so hard in the desert heat of the Indian Wells Valley of East-Central California that Mom nearly passed out at the smell of my post-game shin guards.
It began in the season of toddler-aged curls fading away, when tiny legs chase the ball in a pack headed (if lucky) toward the goal. The phase where the post-game snacks are responsible for 95 percent of the excitement. They were a crucial element to the “success” of the experience.
If one sticks to a sport over time, the competition increases and the leagues become more competitive. The coaches and the parents begin to invest more time and energy into you as a player. Your loved ones are forging their own identity as to what it means to be a part of the support system.
This inevitably results in some degree of pressure. I suppose sometimes that can be helpful with the right personality. Sometimes, detrimental. As a kid on the field, I would get down on myself if I screwed up, if the coach got onto me about a play or a move, or if a parent shared their perspective of my less-than-stellar performance.
I struggled mentally with staying in the game if I wasn’t playing “perfectly.” As if that exists or should. It ate at me. There were moments I wanted to walk away from the game I loved. Sure, I tried other sports here and there. I also danced, dated, trialed a stint in Mathletes (don’t ask), but I always found my way back to the green grass of the pitch.
There is a majestic beauty to the game—when the battle for the ball turns into a charging dribble to release it at just the right moment, sending it through to your striker who chases it down and places it with power in a corner of the goal, causing the keeper whiplash. When you screw up a possession in the middle of the field and feel the heat of the opposing team mounting forces, offensively cramming your decision down your throat as you fight like hell to get back, chase your mark down, play the ball, and clear the danger.
When the team is struggling, connecting passes feels like pulling teeth. When the touches are sloppy and the attitudes are lukewarm and a psychological warfare ensues to turn the game around together as a team. When a player on the other team is yanking and pulling and shoves your teammate to the ground face first and the referee figuratively shrugs their shoulders and says play on.
The fire in your belly builds, and you try to channel it into a win for your team.
Now it’s the year 2022 and my son plays. He is in his first season of what could be considered intense competition where every player has fought for their space on the field. We now travel 60 minutes to two and a half hours for games and tournaments. He is one of the youngest and smallest on the team. He has to work for playing time and playmaking.
The team is led by a skilled coach; the boys care about the outcome of the match. There are no more team snacks, cute baggies of fruit and Gatorade tied up in a translucent bag with a soccer ribbon. It’s more so about the game now. The effort. The performance.
We wrapped up the fall season with an out-of-town tournament. I went into it with no specific expectations. It’s been a choppy schedule of a season and the boys have lost a fair number of games. We’ve struggled with consistency. We have good players but had yet to see their individual talents immerse into a collective feat.
Then, boy, did it come together! They gained confidence their first game with a high score at the end. The second game was against a much better team, and they fought for every single possession, barely screeching by with a 2-1 score. I felt myself tensing during the game, getting more excitable with my cheers-turned-yelling at my son. There were runs I suddenly demanded him to anticipate, touches on the ball I expected him to make, wheels on his legs I wanted turned on. It happened so quickly. I lost self-awareness—which is something I try hard to maintain.
The game ended and most of the boys were ecstatic. They celebrated and gathered to take a picture. After that, my son walked over with a look at the ground and tears in his eyes—a gut punch from my own memory hang-ups that have long been pushed into my subconscious.
We took him back to the car to take off the smelly shin guards. As we aired out the gear and our emotions, he explained how upset the yelling made him. That he heard it all (something I didn’t realize) and it distracted him from the game. That it scared him because our voices were so intense it sounded like we were angry at him.
I wanted to debate him, to explain away all the reasons I was yelling directions or attempting to pump him up more because, naturally, I had excellent, enlightening points that he needed to hear. I did respond that, unfortunately, my cheering/screaming voice projects like an angry tone and I don’t mean it that way. Mostly, though, I did my best to just listen. It’s really freaking hard to just listen, but that’s the thing about parenting. If we don’t shut up to listen, we don’t hear what they need to say.
The third and final game was a back-and-forth match with a team not quite as good as the second game we played. However, it was the championship, so the stakes were higher. I told my husband I was going to only yell comments like “Go United!” and “Well Done!” and “What a pass!” I figured this added level of accountability could only help.
The boys played so well as a collective; the over-caffeinated parental sideline puffed with pride. My son played really well. I saw moments and had frustrations and had to pace away from the field a few times. Where is this coming from, I thought? Who am I in this new role? Who do I want to be? Definitely not the parent who makes her kid cry after his team secures a huge victory. Definitely not the person who steals the joy. Not the source of destruction of his love for the game. I want him to learn comradery, leadership, hard work, and how to position oneself as best as possible to relish in the kadosh moments of this twisted vortex of existence we call life.
I felt better about my failures when a dad on the opposing team lost his composure when he realized they ran out of time to tie the game. Thankfully, he was surrounded by steady parents who talked him down from attacking a 20-year-old referee or us soccer moms. There’s always someone more unglued than you out there, I say to myself. I bask in this comfort. If you look for it, you will find it. It helps us in the petty moments. Thank me later.
I screwed up with my kid. That’s a tough sentence to swallow.
Somehow, though, it’s lightening to say it to the void, to you. I’ve also been in the parenting game just long enough to know not to overdramatize the situation. The story doesn’t end there, and the kid doesn’t need emergency therapy sessions—yet. I’ve done it before, and I’ll do it again. Humble yourself to him, I tell myself. He will appreciate you admitting your faults. He may just talk a little more with you about his own.
They won that third and final game, and the team learned that physical awards were included. They made their way up the grassy hill to the makeshift booth next to the crappers where the tournament coordinator handed the coach their celebratory medals that were placed around their tiny necks.
I asked my son, “How cool is it to be a part of a team like this during a moment like this?!”
His response was, “Can I play again next season?”