Reflections and a Thank You – One Year Later

A year ago today, my son played his final soccer game.  It was the culmination of years of taking him to practices and games, and it was hard to see it all end.  Quite frankly, it had been such a big part of my life that I wasn’t sure how I was going to handle it all ending.  It was a significant life change.

This fall, I attended 37 soccer games (so far), including all but one of the local Illinois Wesleyan men’s team.  It became an enjoyable substitution, and I found myself living and dying with their successes and failures.  It’s not the same as watching my own son play (although one of the players was my son’s teammate all through club and high school), but at least it kept me engaged with the sport.

I wrote the following essay, ‘Reflections and a Thank You ‘ a year ago, the day after my son’s final game.  It was therapeutic in a way, and a tribute to him.  But it also contains a message that I hope parents of young soccer players will learn to embrace, and that is to appreciate the moment, and not get hung up on wins and losses at an early age.  Look at your child’s personal development, both as a soccer player and a functioning member of society, and let he or she be the focal point of what’s good about the great sport of soccer.  At a young age, individual skill development is so much more important than the outcome of a tournament match you won’t even recall five years from now.  Unless your Little League trophies are still proudly displayed in your house (I sure hope not) instead of stored in a box in the attic or basement like mine (actually, I think most are likely in a landfill now), it should be easy to understand what I’m saying.  We all want our children to experience the “thrill of victory” at some point during their formative years, but looking back, I’m more content at knowing my kids enjoyed their athletic experiences without dealing with self-esteem issues because their parents put too much emphasis on winning.

The road is a long one, yet we travel it way too quickly.

Reflections and a Thank You – originally written November 9, 2008

My son played his final college soccer match yesterday.  It didn’t end like it was supposed to, as his team fell in penalty kicks to a side they were clearly better than.  Just not THAT day.

As I begin reflecting through intermittent tears, there are a multitude of lessons I learned throughout his soccer career.  I hope other parents have been as fortunate and learned from their own child’s soccer experiences.

I’m sure it was just yesterday I was standing behind the soccer goal telling him or his five year old teammates to “get the ball” and “use your hands.”  This was, of course, when they were selected to play goalie for one quarter of their recreational league match, and the role of an assistant coach to five year olds was to tell them when to pick up the ball.  Unfortunately, my coaching wasn’t so brilliant as to distinguish the role of goalie from a field player.  They occasionally used their hands there too.

It was just yesterday that, as much as he loved playing, his favorite part of the match was the post-game “treat” the assigned parent of the day was providing.  A quick soccer lesson here is to NEVER bring a healthy treat to a five year old’s soccer match, lest you incur the wrath of all of them.  Rice Krispie treats are ALWAYS preferred to an apple.  If you want to provide fruit, volunteer to bring drinks in the form of a juice box.  The packaging and the little straw seemed to make the kids happy.

When his skills continued to improve, he decided to evolve beyond the recreational league and move into the world of “travel” soccer.  There are many lessons to learn in the unique world of travel soccer, above all distancing yourself from the “win at all costs” parents that don’t understand, or worse yet, fail to embrace the priorities of player development at this young age.

You also learn not to stand in proximity of the opposing team’s parents who feel justified in screaming and threatening a 12-year old kid on the field because he tackled their son a little too aggressively.  In my case, it wasn’t even my own son, but then again, all of his teammates were “my” son.  Fortunately, the situation averted a barbaric ending when the assistant referee stepped in and addressed the opponent’s idiot (sorry, no other word works here) parents for their antics.  I don’t remember who won most of my son’s games when he was twelve.  I wonder if the father that wanted to throw down with a 12-year old remembers.

Speaking of referees, you learn that soccer is a very subjective game.  I could go on and on about parent conflicts here, but rather, will just say I was fortunate enough to watch my son without letting my analysis of a referee’s performance get in the way.  The one thing I learned above all is the referee has a job I would never want.

I am a fortunate father, because my son’s love for soccer never dissipated, and that love evolved from a determined little boy that couldn’t wait to get to practice, to a respectful young man who couldn’t wait to get to practice.

I recall the many pickets we replaced on the fence beside our house because, as he got older and used it as a place to kick his soccer ball, the velocity of his kicks would eventually snap the boards.  Never the handy man, it was the one household task I could perform adequately.

I recall the concern and pain he felt when one of his star teammates, co-captain and best friends broke his leg in a game late in their senior year of high school.  The team rallied and quickly dispatched the opponent in the second half, but my son’s concern was merely to get to the hospital and check on his friend.  We spent four hours in a hospital in Springfield that night, both of us in agony over the injury, as his friend smiled with the aid of a morphine drip that masked the pain of two broken bones and an impending surgery.  Despite getting home after midnight, my son was up early and off to school to face the day, realizing the leadership responsibility of being the remaining captain and the need to reassure his teammates of their team’s future, despite losing a thirty plus goal scorer for the remainder of their season.

I am proud of the fact that my son’s high school coach remains a good friend of his, to the point that he was the coach’s choice to stay at his house and take care of his dogs while he vacationed in Florida for a week.  Of course, it didn’t hurt that the coach had a 60-inch high definition television, and it was the first week of the 2006 World Cup.  Dad was so giving that he volunteered to help by letting the dogs out over his lunch break.  Unfortunately, the result of dad’s unselfishness is that he got to see the USA’s meltdown against the Czech Republic in way too much clarity.

My son’s soccer sustained me through a divorce, an unplanned job change, and ultimately became something I could share with my second wife, a coach and also a sports fan like myself that missed only two games of my son’s senior year in college.

Although he didn’t become a star in college, he was, in dad’s eyes, a reliable teammate.  He was a captain his final season, and just like his last high school match, he left the field at the conclusion of his final college match in tears, sharing an embrace with his sobbing dad one final time.

He scored a goal in his final match, and although the perfect ending would have been a victory, it was likely the best individual performance of his college career.  From the perspective of progressive improvement, at the very least, his final game showed realized potential.

I’m not sure the closeness of a college team is anything like high school, where you have twelve years of bonding among kids of similar backgrounds.  With no championships, there likely won’t be any reunions of my son’s college team.  Still, he’ll have individual memories just as I will, and he’s a better person for the diverse interactions he experienced.

What will I do now that he no longer plays soccer?  He likely won’t coach, although I had always hoped he would.  I think that was MY dream so I wouldn’t have to face the end of HIS career.

But just as I have memories, he too will have memories.  I am grateful that his memories won’t be filled with “what-ifs,” as his life ambition transcends beyond soccer.  It’s a bittersweet reality for dad, but one I know is his best course of action.

When I reflect, I will smile, and occasionally I will cry.  I will think of all the positive lessons a wonderful sport like soccer taught my son, and even more, taught me.  It went from a sport I knew nothing about; to a sport I love above all others.

I owe that to my son.  Thank you Adam.

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