I look over at the heckler in disbelief as he continues his rant, waving a go-cup of coffee for emphasis. All around him, parents are staring. “Shut up!” one father yells. The girl the heckler’s referring to is all of 5 years old, playing soccer for the second time in her life. She looks at the man uncertainly and then over at her mom, frowning. I can feel my head beginning to explode.
Welcome to the world of preschool soccer.
When we signed up my 3-year-old daughter for the under-6 soccer league, I imagined I was giving her a chance to get some exercise and learn about teamwork while I got in some gossip time with my friends on the sidelines. I was wrong.
“Get your head in the game!” a father shouts at his little girl during one match-up as she wanders aimlessly around the field. “Focus on the ball!” a mother screams repeatedly at another game, in what seems like a total waste of a strain on her vocal chords. I mean, how many 3-year-olds even understand what “focus” means?
“We are here to play!” I overhear a mom hiss more than once through gritted teeth, jerking up a preschooler who (yet again) has collapsed in tears on the sidelines behind me. Several times, I’ve tried smiling at parents on the other team, only to be met with scowls in return. Fraternizing with the enemy—even in a league where the only criterion to play is that your kid has to be out of diapers—is apparently not allowed.
We receive an email forwarded to us from a friend. Sent by The Heckler to the league officials and all of the other parents on his team, he accuses my husband of recruiting our assigned 5-year-old team member as a “ringer.” He has included my husband’s online work bio, which mentions that Hubs has coached girls’ soccer for seven seasons. From that, The Heckler has concluded that Hubs “has obviously been around the block a few times” and “knows every trick in the book.” We laugh, imagining Hubs casing preschool playgrounds for a mini-Mia, but honestly, the email is unsettling. When I guest-coach a game a few weeks later, our 5-year-old player eyes the sidelines warily. “I’m glad that man isn’t here to make me feel bad again,” she confides to me. I feel the tiniest crack begin to inch its way across my heart.
What is it about soccer for the small set that makes parents lose their minds? For answers, I check in with Dr. Gregg Steinberg, a professor of sport psychology at Austin Peay, who recently wrote a book called Flying Lessons (myflyinglessons.com), about teaching children to respond like champions in every aspect of their lives. What he has to say about my experiences on the preschool soccer field makes sense. “Parents live vicariously through their children, regardless of age,” he explains. “Their children are a reflection of themselves, and parents are protecting their ego. That makes everyone act crazy.”
I think about the mom I saw at the last game. A former soccer player herself, she clearly had been working with her 3-year-old, who scored one goal after another. I looked over at her as she watched her daughter, expecting to see her face aglow with pride. Instead, her brow was knitted, her mouth turned into a frown as she whispered fiercely to herself, completely oblivious to anyone or anything except for her child out on the field.
It’s not like I’m some kind of soccer mom saint, either. I spent the first few games humiliated after my own daughter refused to go out on the field for more than five minutes, opting instead to play ring-around-the-rosie on the sidelines or sit in my lap. I tried bribes and threats and even made excuses for my daughter to the other parents. It became clear to me after a couple of games that I needed a figurative slap across the face. All I was doing was giving my daughter a chance to experience soccer for herself. What she decided to do with that opportunity had to be entirely up to her. We both enjoyed ourselves a whole lot more after my little epiphany. By the end of the season, without my “help,” she was playing most of every game, occasionally even taking a break from socializing on the field to actually kick the ball. Victory!
Some of my friends have had little sympathy for my predicament, saying 3-year-olds are too young to be playing competitive soccer, anyway. Dr. Steinberg agrees. “Children need to focus on mastery until they understand morals, ethics, how to handle winning and losing,” he says. “This usually occurs around age 10 to 12.” Ten to 12? In recreational soccer, that’s the time when kids start leaving the sport—in droves.
I think I just figured out why.
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