Since the autumn of her first grade year our girl has played soccer. We wanted her to learn teamwork and explore her athletic skills. Now that she’s middle-school age she’s a six year veteran of the local rec league wars.
Playing up into U-8 at the beginning because of her size, she’s now a 12-year-old in U-14. In the beginning she learned about a coaches, cleats and shin-guards. She and her teammates ran around in a scrum of little girls chasing the ball on the half-sized field like a litter of retriever puppies.
Six years on they’re all on the cusp of womanhood, all flying feet and elbows to the finish, eye black for attitude, high fives and hollers, then a deadly boot of the ball into the back of the net like Lionel Messi. Or so her frustrated father thinks from time to time.
The first few years we played most of our games on the idyllic little pitch tucked in behind , where our little rose bud learned all about getting back on defense, dribbling, and the rules of the beautiful game. I mostly learned how to take myself out to the parking lot and cuss under my breath, so not to horrify parents with better temperaments.
I never truly understood sheer frustration and helplessness until I watched my child compete in a sporting event over which I had no control. When games would not go our way my mood would blacken and I would rage at the blind referee, the nefarious opposing coach, the unsportsmanlike opposition.
A couple of years into this a fellow parent said something profound—you’re getting that upset at U-10 rec league? They were right, of course. Rec league is for fun. Some of our early teammates took the travel team route for soccer, lives and days devoted to their academy and select teams.
That’s fine if they and their parents are committed to making soccer their lives. But for every would-be Hope Solo or Brandi Chastain on the travel team, there’s a girl warming the bench, slowly learning to loathe the game she enjoyed in the beginning. A 12-year-old doesn’t need the burden of having to beat out someone for a place on the team. Puberty should be enough stress at that point.
We’ve been blessed with a succession of coaches, generous types who give their time and hearts to our girls and have respect for the game. In the beginning coach had to break up incipient whinnying games of “pony” after water breaks to get them back out on the practice field. Now the girls preen and giggle and try to nonchalantly ogle the “hot high school boys” on the next field.
Our first game of the spring season after a rainy first couple of weeks was more messy than Messi. The other girls were bigger and older, we were playing on their field, and we were trying to work in several new girls into our rotation.
Our opponents should’ve scored three or four goals early on but our keeper was stalwart, but then let a close one in. As things reached the final minutes, our 1-0 deficit seemed as certain a defeat as Wigan against Manchester United.
Yet in the final minute one of our new girls streaked onto the end of a perfect pass and stuffed it past, tying the game 1-1 within an eyelash of the final whistle. It was the unlikeliest of results, and we were all filled with ecstatic joy.
Our roster ebbs and flows over the seasons, losing girls to cheerleading, lacrosse, basketball, equestrian sports, you name it. We’re down to three girls who first played together and against each other at the Incarnation church in the halcyon days of 2006.
They aren’t likely to play soccer at the NCAA level, or in the Olympics. But they have spent the last six years, 12 seasonal spring and fall seasons, learning lessons about themselves and each other. They’ve won some and lost some, dealt with the bad calls and the bad sports.
Their rec league friendships have been won at full-tilt, running to back each other up or kick in each other’s rebound. Theirs is a sisterhood of the shin guard. As for Dad, I’ve gotten better. I only have to flee to the parking lot once or twice a season.