Soccer and Cross-country: ‘burb Living Edition

Two Saturday’s ago, I debuted as a soccer coach for my son’s team. I haven’t played soccer in any official capacity since seventh grade, where I was lucky enough to be a starting defender on the Stallions. Most of the members of the Stallions had been harnessed together since they could strap on shin guards, so I was lucky to join them for the ride. We walloped the teams we faced due to our great chemistry and forwards that could fly up the field. We ended up winning the Saguaro league championship (very AZ name, eh?) at the end of the season. My assignment as a defender was to not let the ball get past me, and in the rare event a player managed to accomplish this feat, run him down.

I even picked up a few yellow cards for tackling a player from behind. This always stunned my teammates, who had me pegged as a squeaky clean, decent sort of chap. I didn’t like people getting by me, though. Held a bit of a grudge about it.

Flash forward thirty some odd years and I’m coaching my son’s team. Thankfully, I’ve got “assistant” in front of my title, because otherwise I don’t think I’d be doing the position justice. The head coach and I have players with a range of skill levels from: “Can kick soccer ball in general direction intended,” to “Can frantically dance around soccer ball in semblance of strange magic ritual without ever actually touching it.”

During our first game, we were surprisingly competitive. The most amusing moments occurred when I was walking the players who had volunteered to serve as goalie for the quarter out onto the field. I asked each one: “Do you know the rules for being a goalie?” One kid gave me the classic blank stare. The next said, “Oh yeah” like the guy with the deep voice in the Ferris Bueller song. He had so much confidence oozing off of him you could have bottled it. But I wasn’t the assistant coach for nothing. I said to him, “So, tell me what the rules are.” Blank stare. I explained how he could use his hands within the defined box laid out on the field in chalk. He gave me a squint, trying to discern why I was bothering him with these petty details, and noted, so as to alleviate any confusion I might have about the matter, “I am an excellent soccer player.”

We won the game 2-1. I can’t say that it was our excellent goalie play that made the difference. Perhaps our confidence put us over the edge.

Flash forward a week and my ten year old daughter participated in her first cross country meet. I have no hidden cross country past to report, so it was as new for me as it was for her. I joined the throng gathered at the starting line. The cheering there was fairly muted, because the weather was soggy and the female runners from our team had inexplicably taken off prior to the starting whistle. I asked a parent close by: were the teams supposed to start at different times? No. They all start together. Well, where were our girls? Apparently, our coach had sent our squad off to “run the course.” More confusion on my part. Isn’t that something they should do, say, a half hour before, not right before the race is to begin?

After a few more confused and anxious moments, the girls from our squad poured back to the line, out of breath, red-cheeked, shrugging shoulders, looking at each other with some embarassment, apparently as confused as I was. Turns out the coach had not asked them to run the course. He’d asked them to “run to the pavement.” By this, he’d meant the sidewalk about 40 feet away to get a feel for starting out, but the girls had taken him to mean the street, which was a half mile distant. They hadn’t known which pavement he meant and had been too scared to ask. Lesson for my daughter: don’t fear the coach. Ask!

I moved to the finish line to see her return. I learned that day that the finish is nearly always painful for the runner and celebratory for everyone else. Shouts of encouragement echoed around the park as the runners came in. That same anguish you see on elite marthoners’ faces as they struggle for the finish line was written all over the faces of these kids trying to finish a mile or two. My daughter cruised in with a time that was better than any she’d done in the past for the distance. Like the other parents, I went to full-throated cheering section as her face flickered between anguish and determination with the finish line in sight. She placed 11th out of 57 girls.

Afterward, we stood together by a tree. She was crying because she felt like she was going to puke. I wondered then if she’d ever do this again. She seemed stripped down by the whole experience. Then, the congratulations from her teammates and other parents began to roll in. “11th out of 57 – at your first race? Wow!” Interest flickered in her eyes. I don’t think we’ve seen our last cross country meet.

I often talk with other suburban parents about how many sports they have their kids in, and am usually shocked at the schedules they keep. Don’t get me started on baseball. Those parents are saints. My wife and I are in total agreement that we don’t want our lives consumed by our kids’ activities. But, so far, the schedule isn’t too bad, and between the comedy on the soccer field and the exalted anguish at the cross country meet, sporting events in the ‘burbs appear to be worth it.

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