Soccer dad

By Tim Schenck

Nothing screams “suburban dad” quite like standing on a soccer field on a Saturday afternoon. It’s one thing to stand in front of a smoky grill with tongs at the ready or walk around the backyard with beads of sweat dripping from your forehead while wielding a weed whacker. But when you’re staring at a bunch of kids swarming around a soccer ball on a weekend morning when you should still be in bed drinking coffee and reading the paper, you’ve reached suburban nirvana. You may as well take out a second mortgage on the house because you’re not going anywhere for awhile.

It’s fascinating to me how the most popular sport in the world binds American families together in a common weekend pursuit. At the appointed hour thousands of cleated kids pour out of mini vans all across the country. Parents, carrying travel mugs of coffee and those fold-up soccer mom chairs, trudge out behind them. This ritual continues every weekend during the fall and spring. At least until our kids graduate high school. Then no self-respecting American could care less about soccer. Which may be why the United States has never won the World Cup.

While most of us enjoy watching our children engage in athletic endeavors, it’s amazing how many parents feel imprisoned by weekend youth sports. The constant shuttling around to practices and games, the precious moments of free time being slowly sucked away by 10-minute quarters. No one’s forcing you at gunpoint to sign your kid up, but guilt and suburban peer pressure are powerful things.

I helped coach Ben’s teams his first couple of seasons. It wasn’t too much of a commitment at first – a brief Saturday morning practice followed by a half-hour game. But this eventually morphed into an hour-long Saturday practice followed by games on Sunday afternoon. Since I work on Sunday mornings (couldn’t negotiate that out of my contract) and am pretty much spent by the afternoon, I just help out on an ad hoc basis whenever the coach needs an extra pair of hands. I particularly enjoy the pre-practice exercise where I’m the goalkeeper and all the kids take shots. At the same time.

Most coaches at the kindergarten level have little knowledge of the game of soccer. Their coaching careers began because someone had to do it. I actually love the game of soccer and in my glory days was captain of a lousy high school soccer team. But even if you imported some Brazilian soccer star to coach your kid’s AYSO squad, it still comes down to two basic concepts: kick the ball towards your opponent’s goal and don’t use your hands. That’s as much coaching as a bunch of five-year-old boys and girls can digest. The nuances of the game are, shall we say, lost on this crowd.

Nonetheless, some coaches take this stuff pretty seriously. This despite the fact that no one’s even keeping score at this level – “every game’s a tie” is the mantra for these games. But not to some of these guys; they play to win even if no one else does. They probably call the parents the night before for bed checks just to make sure none of their players are out late partying. We played one team where the coach pulled out a dry erase board between quarters to draw up plays. The kids dutifully gathered around to listen but then when play resumed they swarmed around the ball like every other group of kindergartners in the free world. I’m sorry but you’re not Vince Lombardi; step away from the clipboard.

One thing I learned after awhile is that coaching your son doesn’t work so well. Things I would tell Ben got either ignored or met with a look of complete annoyance. But when the same thing was said by a “real” coach, i.e. not his dad, he would respond immediately. As if my exhortation to throw the ball in to a teammate down the line instead of into the middle of the field was inherently flawed. But if Coach Ian said it, it must be brilliant strategy. I guess it’s the same phenomenon you run into when you hear your child was so polite at a play date, saying “please” and “thank you.” Are you sure we’re talking about my kid? There are places when not being the parent is helpful to a child’s development and the soccer field is one of them.

In beginning youth soccer, as in life, it’s helpful to keep things simple. When it comes to our faith lives, Jesus, too, urges simplicity. He distills everything down to the following: “Love God and love neighbor.” Simple, straightforward, no frills. It’s the equivalent of the two commandments of kindergarten soccer – kick the ball towards your opponent’s goal and don’t use your hands. When you remember the basics, everything else eventually falls into place. Even Pelé had to start with the basics and it’s not a bad place for us as well. We don’t have to be fundamentalists to remember the “fundamentals” of faith. Love God and love neighbor. The fundamentals are what keep us spiritually grounded and focused. So if we work hard to love God and neighbor, we’ll be in pretty good shape.

In the meantime, I’ll see you on the soccer field. I’ll be the one cursing the Good Humor truck that always seems to pull up just as the game is ending.

From What Size Are God’s Shoes, copyright Timothy Schenck 2008, and used by permission of Church Publishing. The Rev. Tim Schenck, rector of All Saints, Briarcliff Manor, New York, blogs at Clergy Family Confidential.

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