As the father of two daughters, and their only male influence in life, there are times when I feel like I’ve got to just come right out and give it to them straight. That those who are bloodthirstier, eat better. That this can’t be all fun and games. That life is hard.
Recently, our oldest daughter, Agatha (9), competed in soccer tryouts. She’s been playing soccer since she was four, and last season made the A team in the competitive league where she started on defense. She’s got a ton of natural hand-eye coordination and is as quick as she is fast–but lacks killer instinct. That’s not to say that she doesn’t love soccer. She does. And she’s quite good. But she’s known to apologize during a match if she bumps someone too hard or kicks an opponent in their (guarded) shins. And she’ll laugh out loud on the field during a contest if the situation calls for it. Sure, it’s sportsmanlike and fun, but it’s not hardcore soccer. And now that she’s nine I think it’s time to focus more on how to beat opponents down instead of just having fun. After all, winning is the goal. Otherwise we’re just throwing our time and money away. Not going to be a soccer star? Fine. Let’s move on to another scholarship sport.
I planned my work schedule around attending both days of the 90-minute tryouts. When we arrived, the first thing I noticed was that there were double the number of girls trying out this year than last. The next thing I noticed was how really big the girls seemed. In fact, when we checked in I had to make sure that we were at the tryouts for the Under-10 league. Agatha’s proportionately built, and muscular, but shorter than most kids her age. I dutifully remind her of how until I was 17, I was always the smallest kid. Then things changed. A lot. You see, I tell her these things because I know that deep down she must harbor some pain about being short. She says she doesn’t, but I know better. Anyway, most of the kids at this year’s soccer tryouts looked like Amazons next to my kid.
I told her to be quick.
She then she took the field with all the others and didn’t seem nervous at all. And why should she? She just wants to play. She’s very comfortable with her skill level, even though she’ll tell you she’d like to learn to get better. But most of all, she loves the camaraderie.
I don’t have the heart to tell her the truth about this being a prestigious level of competitive soccer and that which team a child plays on is how the parents measure themselves.
So I watched from the sideline, biting my tongue and standing with a few other parents from last year’s A team who were intently focused on whether their child was impressing the tryout scouts.
It was funny to hear the parents mumble encouragement and disgust. Oftentimes in the same breath. And I was right there with them – pretending to care less than everyone else, even though deep down the fire was raging.
Afterward, Agatha was drenched with sweat, smiling and satisfied with her effort. I was too. Though I did mention that I thought she looked a little afraid of one very big girl who dominated the other girls on the field. “I know! I was!” She said without hesitation. We both laughed and walked off the field together in the lavender dusk. It was like a Kevin Costner movie.
Our daughters attend Montessori elementary school. No pressure. No homework. No competition. Just kindness, grace, and peace. Not coincidentally, none of her friends at school play soccer. No, good soccer players this age don’t go to Montessori school. They attend business prep school where they learn to orchestrate hostile takeovers.
Agatha’s sister Cozette, is six. When the weather’s nice, you can usually find them in our yard entertaining themselves doing things like creating imaginary worlds with chalk and bubbles, playing with the dogs, having water wars with the hose, exploring bugs, etc.
Two Christmases ago Santa brought a soccer net. The kind that returns the ball to you when you kick it in just the right spot. It sits next to the shed out back and rarely comes into play. As middle-class parents who work full time and who must tend to a house and family, we don’t have a lot of time to drill her on soccer skills. Especially considering that neither my wife nor I played, and so don’t have much authority.
However, if the skill level of the girls trying out was any indication, we were in the minority in how we manage our children’s play time. It made me resent Maria Montessori a little.
Before we arrived for day two of tryouts, I pulled Agatha aside and told her to leave everything she had out on the field. Have fun, yes, but also compete on every play. And I left her with this, “You don’t play soccer with your legs. You play it with your heart.” It was one of those moments of parenting brilliance that sometimes pop in there. The stuff of inspirational business posters featuring an eagle in flight.
During the tryouts I avoided other parents and spent my time assessing the talent from afar. There were over 50 girls and probably 10 that I felt were much better than Agatha–more speed, better footwork, relentless, size–the works. For this session of the tryouts, the scouts seemed to group the girls in teams based on their skill level from their assessment of the previous day’s session. They then had the teams play each other, rotating them on five fields in a 4v4 format.
The best team was obvious. They were tough, ruthless girls who rolled over, passed through, and dribbled around the children in their path. They called to each other like a pack of velociraptors. It was clear that these kids had a lot of training. From home.
From my vantage point, well away from the other parents, I couldn’t see her every move, but from what I could see, Agatha beat every girl she confronted—holding her position beautifully. Her footwork was immaculate and her passing crisp. Amazingly, she seemed to slow the game down a bit—something I’ve preached to her for years, but that she didn’t seem to grasp until now.
Her team never had to face off against the team of Amazon stormtroopers, and for that I was grateful. She’d left her heart on the field, was sweaty and happy, and I couldn’t have been prouder.
Then came the waiting. The deal was that the scouts would compile notes, put together rosters, and call the players later in the week to let them know whether they made one of the three teams. Or not.
Two nights later the call came. It was her new coach. She introduced herself to me, shared her qualifications, and was quite excited to talk to Agatha directly to see if she’d accept her offer to play on the B team.
The B team.
My heart sank. I felt cheated. I tried not to look disappointed as I walked the phone into the bedroom where Agatha was playing with little plastic animals in an imaginary land she’d created on the floor. I handed her the phone and said I didn’t know who it was. My wife came running up to me as I closed the door, “Is it them? Is it the soccer league? Is it Katie (her coach from last year who was going to coach the U-10 A team this year)?” I nodded, nodded, and shook my head. She frowned.
Her heart sank for Agatha too.
We waited in the hallway, expecting tears.
As I readied a speech about how sports should be fun, an email pinged my wife’s phone. It was the mother of one of the players from last year’s A team asking everyone whether they “had been contacted by Coach Katie yet because she only knew of five girls from last year’s A team that were contacted so far about this year’s A team.”
Five kids from last year’s A team beat out my kid? Five? Really? Oh, now I was pissed. I’ll show them, I’ll spend the summer training my daughter to spit fire and then when we play the so-called A Team in the regular season this fall, we’ll see who has the last laugh. I may even enroll her in soccer camps all summer long with coaches from Russia and Uruguay.
Yes, there comes a time in life when you’ve got to grow up and face the fact that the world is tough. As a man, I feel it’s my obligation to reinforce this to my daughters so that they can move confidently through life.
As we awaited sobs, what we heard next caught us both off guard.
There was giggling. And laughing. Followed by a couple of “Cools” a “That’s awesome!” and finishing with “Thank you. I can’t wait!”
Agatha then burst out of her room, slapped the phone into my palm and shouted, “I made it!” And as she raced out the back door to her grandmother’s apartment to tell her the good news, she stopped, looked back at us, and with a huge smile said, “And I get to make all new friends!”
And at that moment I was once again reminded that the women in my life make me the man that I am. And that sometimes the lessons of parenting go both ways.