The Hess Report


Tuesday, April 20, 2004

The Animal Unleashed

Several months ago, Maddie impressed upon us the fact that wanted to play soccer. Neither Joy nor I had illustrious careers in sports, at any age, and hadn't seen anything in Maddie's behavior up to this point to make us think that she would perform differently. In fact, several of her less stellar qualities (a willingness to give up if things even look like the might get tough, low frustration threshold, timidity in the face of minor physical intimidations, etc.) Of course, sports might help with that. Then again, a bad sports experience now could kill the whole thing for her. But we told her she could play, and kept our skepticism to ourselves.

At her first practice, she was a squirrel, and spent more time giving us winks and thumbs up signs than paying attention on the field. Of course, a lot of the other kids seemed to be lost in space, too. But the kids all had fun.

For the next two weeks, both practices and games were rained out. And, as it rained pretty much continuously during that time, I could only get her outside to "practice" twice. Both times, kicking the ball around and running was just too much work. I did manage to help her with her strange, inefficient running form.

When running, she looks like the intro cartoons to the live-action 60's dreck Batman series: tight fists, teeth clenched and elbows flying wide to the sides. She has always thought she was fast, because running with such determination and expenditure of energy must certainly have felt fast. But in that first soccer practice, she was one of the slowest kids. So, I told her to keep her elbows in to her sides and to let her hands hang loose, then did a couple of demonstration runs for her. It seemed to work, though I couldn't be sure. She certainly looked better while running, but was it appreciably faster? Tough to tell when she's racing against only my memory of her speed on a short backyard course. We'd find out for sure at the next game.

Discouragingly, both practice sessions I had with her included tears. Once, because the ball hit her in the arm, and it stung. I informed her that she might get hit with the ball during a game, or fall in the mud, or be kicked or pushed rather vigorously, and that she should decide right now how she wanted to react on the field. That stopped the crying that time. She broke down during the other session because... well, I'm still not sure why. I was trying my best to have a no pressure atmosphere, but in sports that's really almost impossible. Oh well.

The night before her first game, after I tucked her into bed, I told her this (and I did it specifically the night before and not right before the game, as I wanted it to sink in while she slept): "You have your first game tomorrow. Remember all that stuff we worked on outside?"

"Yeah."

"All of that stuff is just to help you learn the game better. Don't even think about any of it when you're playing."

"Oh."

"There's only three things you need to do out there tomorrow: Pay attention to the ball. Pay attention to your coach. And have fun."

"That's it?"

"That's it."

The next day, we loaded up the van and the whole family trucked over to the soccer field. They have four games going on simultaneously, each on a quarter of a full field with their own little goals. The teams in her age group play 3 on 3, without a goalie.

Maddie was excited, and I asked her if she remember what she was supposed to do. She said:

"Have fun. Watch the ball. Listen to the coach."

Close enough. It sunk in.

I'm going to recap the game, but will summarize with this: I was blown away. She was right on the ball the whole time. Her running form was loose and a couple of times she actually poured on some speed to outrun the pack and steal the ball from the other team. Even in a big group, she jostled around, got to the ball, moved it when she could. Every time the coach yelled "I need someone over here!" she was the first one to respond.

And she loved it. They kept rotating the kids to keep them fresh. She was always ready to go back in for a double shift if some other kid didn't want to sub. She was bummed when she had to sit out. She knew when she had done well, and when something had gotten by her. She asked what she could do better and asked if we could work on more stuff this week. Absolutely.

While I was not completely surprised by her excellent performance, neither would I have been surprised by an utter disaster. In the end, I'm glad that the side of me that hoped that Maddie had a good, competitive spirit somewhere inside won out over the part of me that hadn't seen it yet, and didn't quite believe it was there. Now if I could just get over the loud-mouthed parents who, even with their kids at this young age, feel the need to shred their vocal folds yelling non-stop instructions to their little ones on the field.

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