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Soccer, like music and art, is one of those precious gifts that gives value to life.
Life Lessons from Soccer is about the complex relationships among parents, coaches, and children on the soccer field. Its focus is one of a child's first treks through life, one guided principally by parents. It's about the true goals of soccer: the development of perseverance, courage, and character. It is about changing parents' and coaches' concepts that a child is born a winner or a loser, intelligent or stupid, agile or awkward.
The great soccer player Pelé once said, "School is for the child. But soccer is for the family and child." The soccer field is the family's field of opportunity. It bestows an opportunity to learn the life lessons of:
1. Support 2. Friendship 3. Competition 4. Victory 5. Defeat 6. Care, courage, and character 7. The exceptional bond between parent and child and community 8. Presence, attitude, acceptance, and communication 9. Love
Life Lessons from Soccer includes true stories, some humorous, some sobering. The names used are fictitious and often used to illustrate the point and focus: Mr. Excuski, Mrs. Bigwig, Mr. Sherman, and Hank "the Horrible," to name a few. Sometimes I have combined scenarios, for the sake of being concise, but I hope that each story will enhance your understanding of your child and your unique relationship with him or her.
Experience gives you life's consequences, then teaches you the lesson. Life Lessons from Soccer is written so you can learn from the experiences of my life as a dad, coach, and physician.
Copyright © 2001 by Vincent Fortanasce, M.D.
Chapter One: Dreams
A Child Without a Dream Is Like a Boat Without a Sail
Seven-year-old Kathy beamed a smile that could have brightened the rainiest of days. "Mom, Mom!" she cried out excitedly. Her mother was pouring milk into a mug with a picture of Madonna on the side. "What is it?" she asked.
"I know what I want to be when I grow up! I want to be like Mia Hamm!"
Her mother sighed. "She's not another rock star, is she?"
"No, Mom, she's the greatest soccer player ever! I'm gonna be like her, you watch." Her words were spoken with the absolute certainty that only fantasy-laden children can muster. "Can I get a soccer ball and a poster of her maybe? I'll clean my room and vacuum forever. I promise, I promise."
Kathy's mom, a corporate lawyer, sighed again and, in the same tone a jury foreman might use to declare a defendant guilty, said, "No. Stop filling your head with childish dreams. You've never even played soccer before, how can you be the greatest player? Eat breakfast, finish your homework, and get ready for school." Suddenly a chill wind swept the sunshine from Kathy's face and clouds covered the twinkle in her eyes. "Don't you realize it's only study and hard work that will help you make something of your life? It's a degree you need, not a poster!"
With a few simple words, both Kathy and her dream had been crushed.
Dreams are an inspiration to children. Yes, they are childhood dreams -- to be a professional soccer player, a firefighter, a rock star, or an actress -- but children see these people on TV and it's exciting to them. It's what they talk about at school. Most important, dreams provide motivation, purpose, and direction for a child, no matter how unlikely the dreams are. Nurture the dreams and they will bring spirit, determination, and pleasure to your child. After all, success ultimately is determined by the joy in life.
Those childhood dreams will change with age, just as eight-year-old boys hate girls and then grow to love them at eighteen.
Sam wanted to be a soccer player like the great Brazilian player Pelé. But Sam was the smallest in his class, slow, and not very skillful with a soccer ball.
However, his parents never wavered. They brought him to every North American Soccer League game, especially when the New York Cosmos and Pelé were playing. They helped Sam pin a giant poster of Pelé on his bedroom wall and Sam worked hard to play as well as he could.
Ten years later, Sam's dream changed. He wanted to be a doctor. He went after that dream with the same zeal that he had pursued his dream of being a soccer player. He graduated medical school near the top of his class. His parents taught him as a child to follow his dream. They thought he could do whatever he set his mind to do. And, as a result, so did Sam.
Too many parents stamp out childhood dreams with adult realities. In doing so they stamp out a child's hope and motivation, they quash the sunshine and starry-eyed fantasies that make childhood so special.
I can still remember the moment one cloudy Saturday morning when my dad asked me to fetch the mower from the garage to cut the lawn. You might ask why this is such a memorable moment. Well, it was my tenth birthday and it appeared that my parents had forgotten. I dutifully trudged to the garage and pulled open the door. I moved some boxes and a bike out of the way and finally uncovered the mower. My parents stood behind me, staring in disbelief as I slowly pushed it out. My dad cleared his throat. "Hey, Vin." I looked up at him, feeling very sorry for myself. I couldn't believe they'd forgotten my birthday. He smiled at my mom, then patted me on the head. "How are you going to win the Tour de France?" I frowned, then followed his gaze over to the bike. It was a gleaming ten-speed racer. My birthday present! I hadn't even noticed it. In a flash I was a bundle of excitement, my head filled with images of winning the bicycle race of bicycle races, the Tour de France. I carried this dream with me for a long time. I never raced in the Tour, of course, only with the other kids on my block, but I still remember the moment my parents ignited my childhood dream. They believed in me.
Several studies have shown that parents who nurture childhood dreams have children who are happier and have a greater sense of control over their destiny.
Talent, character, and a good sense of right and wrong are important. However, without a dream, without hope and motivation, a child is like a ship on dry land.
If your child has no direction, no hero, no dream, what do you do?
- Look at yourself, and ask what is your dream? If the answer is, "I don't have one," that may be the problem. Get a dream, let your child have dreams.
- If you feel that you are nurturing your child's dream, but your child seems to lack enthusiasm, ask yourself, "Is it my dream, or my child's?"
- Inspire your child. After all, a good parent is an example, a great parent is an inspiration. Be an inspiration, a parent who nurtures dreams and hope.
Copyright © 2001 by Vincent Fortanasce, M.D.
Chapter Two: The Game
Keep in Focus the Goal of Children's Soccer
The morning dew had not yet burned off the soccer field as the sun rose over the San Gabriel Mountains. Each blade of grass lay tranquil and peaceful, ready to form the new carpet for tiny feet pushing a leather ball around in hopes of scoring a goal. I looked proudly at my son, Vinnie, who had just turned five. Glimpsed through the morning sun, he looked somewhat like a Raggedy Andy doll: oversize shorts extending halfway down his calves, shin guards dangling from his socks like Roman shields, and a shirt that was at least five sizes too big with baggy sleeves draped over his fingers. But the one thing that fit just perfectly was his huge grin. His little thumping heart was full of expectations.
I, too, took a deep breath. I could smell a faint hint of orange blossom mixed with freshly cut grass that made the experience complete. This was no baseball field, but I had the same excited feeling and anticipation of fun and adventure that I had when I played Little League baseball. His two younger siblings, Kaycee and Michael, stood with their mom on the touchline. I knew little about the sport, though my family is from Italy, home of some of the greatest soccer players in the world.
Vinnie's coach, Hank, a burly, angular man, looked like every baseball coach I had ever seen, except he was dressed in shorts rather than trousers and wore a red bandanna instead of a baseball cap. But he had that same authoritative strut and command to his voice that I'd seen around every baseball diamond. Our team, the Bears, was preparing to face the Hornets. I looked over to the other side of the field where the Hornets were huddled. Three of the boys perched on a soccer ball, using it as a pogo stick to bounce around on their little rear ends, then fell on the ground, rolling in the dirt and doing what kids do best: having fun. They didn't look much like Hornets to me. Hank, whose nickname I would not discover until later, led our five-, six-, and seven-year-olds through a vigorous calisthenics routine. Quite impressive, I thought, despite the fact that they were all hopping up and down, much to Hank's displeasure, like spilled marbles bouncing along the ground.
Then the game began. It looked nothing like the games I'd seen on TV, with the players spread across the field in a neat order, the ball passing between them methodically. This was more like a game of rugby, with everyone swarming after the ball, kicking it, missing, diving, and falling on the ground. A few kids appeared to have some skill, but the majority were just expressing the freedom of being outside, kicking and jumping and having a great time.
The score at the end of the first half was 1-1. As they walked off at halftime all the little boys had big smiles that could light up a moonless night. Then Hank began his halftime pep talk. He loomed over the Bears and shouted, "What is wrong with you? Why don't you listen? Stay in your positions and you forwards, don't just dribble the ball, shoot!" In an unforgiving tone he urged them to, "Be more intense. More intense. More intense." The kids looked up at him with furrowed brows, confusion etched across their faces.
I couldn't help noticing the Hornets' coach, Judy. She was kneeling down, eye level to her players, smiling and laughing with them.
As the whistle blew for the start of the second half, I was astonished to hear Hank whisper to our gangly striker, Shawn, "If their number 6 gets in your way again, take him out." What did that mean? As the second half began I noted that Judy had substituted in her second team, giving every child a chance to play, and luckily the no. 6 had been left out. We, however, still had in our starting eleven. It quickly became apparent that their second team was no match for our first. Only their goalkeeper, Armando, an obviously talented kid, remained in, but he alone was no match for our forwards, especially Shawn. The second half was barely a minute old when our Bears scored.
As the game restarted, the Hornets' goal quickly came under attack again. Little Armando worked valiantly, diving to the left and right, blocking shots, scampering across the goal mouth, throwing his body in the way of the ball. But his effort was in vain and a third goal came within a couple of minutes. The Hornets' entire defense seemed to have melted with the substitution of their key players. Every time the ball hit the back of the net, Hank jumped into the air, landed on his knees, arms outstretched, and yelled "Goooooal!" at the top of his lungs.
After the fourth goal blasted past him, poor Armando's spirits withered. His shoulders slumped, his arms hung listlessly by his sides. "You couldn't catch a cold," shouted one of the Little Bears' dads.
Armando's dad, José, was easy to pick out from the crowd. He was the man with the anguish in his face. A muscular, square-jawed man with olive skin whom I judged to be hardworking by the calluses and fine scratches etched across his hands, he shouted the first words of encouragement to his son, "Great try," "Good effort," and "That's my son." His words were filled with warmth, acceptance, and support. But as each goal was scored, his voice strained. "Watch out! Man on the right!" His cross expression clearly said, "Why are they allowing this to happen to my son?" The same thoughts were racing through my mind. Why didn't Hank substitute some of our players to even the game out? Yes, we were winning, but at what cost? The game as a competition was over. Now it was the slaughter of the innocent. Somebody had made a mistake. Now all the Hornets' parents swarmed around their coach, yelling at her, urging her to "do something."
Then it happened. The sixth goal shot past Armando and he sank to his knees, all seven years of him, tears streaming down his face as he realized how hopeless it all was now. But in kids' soccer, the game is not played just on the field, but also on the touchlines. I could see Armando's mother holding onto his father's arm. She pleaded, "Don't go, you'll only make things worse for him."
But José could not be deterred. He tore out onto the field, picked up his son, and hugged him. Everyone heard it. "Dad, I tried, I tried. I can't stop them. I'm no good."
Then José replied, "Son, I love you. I love you. Now don't give up. Don't give up." Then he looked up and glared at Hank, anger and anguish glistening in his eyes. He didn't say anything. Hank and the Bears could have their victory. All he wanted was for his son not to be hurt anymore. I looked at the Hornets' baby faces that had been filled with bouncing giggles an hour ago. Now, half their light was out, their spirits crushed.
Then Hank did the unthinkable and yelled at Armando's tearful father. "Get off the field, we're not finished with you yet. Losers cry. Winners win," he mocked. "No wonder your kid cries with the example you give him."
José walked slowly over to Hank. Everyone stared in stunned silence as José raised his fist, his eyes fixed on Hank. Then, just as suddenly, José lowered his fist and gently shook his head. "And what are you really winning?" he asked Hank. "If it means that much to you, take the victory. If beating up little boys is what you call winning." He turned to go back to his wife, carrying his son. At that moment, it was as if dark clouds and evil spirits overshadowed the blue sky. Parents turned on coaches, parents on parents, team on team, coach on coach. Good manners and good sportsmanship were bid good riddance for the rest of the season.
A parent of one of the Hornets yelled out that he thought they needed a "real coach." Another cried, "Hey, Judy, get our good players -- like my son -- back on the field instead of these goofs!"
"Who are you calling a goof?" responded another wounded Hornets' parent. A scream across the field followed. "We'll show you who's not done scoring. If Armando's dad's afraid to knock your block off, I'm not, you *#@*%*#!!!"
Hank puffed out his chest and shouted back, "After we kick another goal past you, I'll be over there to kick your *#@*%*#" He looked down for the adulation of his Bears but all he saw were three boys with their fingers in their ears and the rest frowning. This was the first time some of the children had been exposed to such hatred demonstrated by anyone, let alone their moms and dads.
The damage had already been done. What at first had been a great day for kids had become a nightmare, a bitter feud between parents and coaches. And it was unlikely to end there. The incident had brought out the worst aspects of human nature and would set the tone for the rest of the season. What happened?
But Parents and Coaches Should
Behave Like Adults
I realized that the problems with soccer were no different from those I'd encountered in Little League. The most surprising thing about kids' sports is that the parents can be reduced to barbarianism much more easily than their children. Players and parents who arrive with open hearts and smiling faces, eager to learn and have fun together, can be soured by adults who've forgotten the true meaning of soccer or any children's sport.
The goals of youth soccer are simple and fourfold: for the kids to have fun, to be safe, to build character, and, most important, to learn sportsmanship and fair play. At my son's game, the adults, the guardians of those principles, had failed the children. What struck me even more than the adults' immaturity was that it took only one man to initiate the conflict, which was fueled by the other adults, myself included. I'd cheered and jumped for joy after each goal. I urged our boys to score more and I certainly didn't go to Hank and say, "Hey, this is unfair." I reveled in the other team's defeat. I felt stronger and superior because my team -- my son's team -- was mauling another bunch of five- and six-year-olds. Sad, I thought, is not the word. Tragic was more like it.
And why do we adults allow this behavior to continue? The reason is simple. We have forgotten what is important. We all want our children to be made of the "right stuff," to be confident, happy. But the right stuff is not created overnight. We forget that scores are meaningless to a child. What builds the right stuff is not winning, not being the best, but trying one's best. Never giving up. That's the message we should be instilling in our children. That's the lesson that will best serve them throughout their lives. But to do this correctly we must be as concerned for another parent's child as for our own -- even if that child is on the opposing team. Empathy and the ability to have compassion and protect all the children, not just your own, is the life lesson that will help our children most.
As everyone left the field that day, not even the victors seemed to feel good about themselves. Our coach, Hank, smiled, but it was a shallow and embarrassed one. I stared at him, appalled with the way he had fashioned the game, and I was going to have to air my disgust. It was unsportsmanlike and unfair to the kids, to say the least. In fact it was outrageous arrogance. He had single-handedly destroyed the game for everyone. That's what I'd tell him.
I walked over to him and the words just fell out. "Great job, coach."
I couldn't believe that I'd just reinforced his destructive behavior. How many times has any parent done that? Each time my child comes back from a game, what is the first thing I ask him? Did you win? Did you score a goal? Is that really what I should be asking? Only one team ever wins, so there is a 50 percent chance that he is going to have to embarrassingly admit, "No, I lost, Dad. I'm a loser." Usually only one or two players at most will get to score a goal during a soccer match. Defenders, even good ones, might not score during an entire season. And in fact, is winning and scoring goals the reason why they're there, or is it something else? Something that provides a victory even in defeat? Something that is more enduring than just talent, the scoreboard, or the standings? Something that makes children the right stuff?
So, instead of, "Did you win?" or, "Did you score a goal?" what should we be asking? How about, "Did you have fun?" or, "What did you do?" The score isn't the important part and it's a fallacy to say that winning breeds success. After all, winning is usually never final and losing is never fatal.
To top it all off, as I walked to my car, I overheard Richard, a Hornets dad, talking to his son. "A woman for a coach -- damn, we'll never win. She keeps you, her best player, out and puts in kids that can't kick the dirt let alone the ball." I thought that Judy was a good coach who had ensured that all her players played. Now she was being vilified for doing the right thing. That's why so many good coaches quit. I didn't realize it at the time, but Hank had made it look as if he'd substituted his best player. But he merely got Shawn, our top scorer, to switch shirts with another boy, so he could stay in the game! That's right, all hail the motto "Win at all costs."
I remember my father's words when I was first teaching my kids to play ball. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Vin, there is no doubt that you have learned to win in life. But you did that not by winning but by something else." He reminded me of the adage: "Winning and talent will get your kids to first base, but it is their character and how they deal with losing that will bring them home." The metaphor is a little mixed when applied to soccer, but the spirit of the saying is exactly the same.
But what is character and how do you build it? Can parents and coaches influence children to grow up to be the right stuff? Can they foster a child's self-esteem and inner security? Certainly I saw during the game that day how parents and coaches can do exactly the opposite and destroy children's confidence and self-esteem. Which begs one question above all others: why?
The major reasons why adults cause youth sport to deteriorate into a competition among adults are:
- An instinctive, primal need for a parent to protect a child from what the parent perceives as the pain of losing.
- Unconscious expectations of parents and coaches.
- Confusing success for children with success for parents.
- Parents' lack of know-how when it comes to positively influencing their child.
Primal protection, probably the most powerful of all emotions, is the instinctive force that drives a parent to protect his child at all costs. It is so powerful in women that when given a choice between saving either their child or their husband, 98 percent of more than two thousand women surveyed said they would save the child. Only 52 percent of men said they would save their child over their spouse, according to an Adelphi University study. José's first instinct was to protect his son by running onto the field.
Unconscious parental and coach expectations take on many aspects. The day we think we have no hang-ups is the day we just added another. We have expectations that we don't even realize we possess. Fathers and mothers unconsciously believe, "My son or daughter must be everything I was not," or, "She must be as great as I think I am." Coaches have dreams of grandeur, of being "the winner." They fear being rejected by the parents as a failure if they don't win. Later chapters will be devoted to this issue.
Confusion about what success is for a child versus success for an adult stems from parents and coaches experiences where they are evaluated on results only. Who cares how hard one worked, studied, or tried -- you either got an A or not. Even in Star Wars, the wise old Jedi, Yoda, said, "There is no try. Only do!" However, for children, success is effort, trying hard, never giving up. Many parents are surprised to learn that results for children are minor. The fast track to childhood failure is to praise only results.
Most parents, although well intentioned, do not know how to influence their children to try their best and never give up. Perseverance is taught, fostered, and nurtured by you, the parent. Hank's answer to the problem was that the team must be "more intense." But he wasn't teaching them about perseverance, the means to an end; he was simply focused on the goal.
Remember: You can open the door for your child but you cannot make him walk through it.
Copyright © 2001 by Vincent Fortanasce, M.D.