WEIGHING IN – Ria refused to join her teammates.
Instead, my nearly 5-year-old daughter whimpered on the sidelines as her fellow youth soccer players swarmed to the ball.
“You don’t even have to kick it,” my wife, Kathleen, and I told our daughter. “But your team is counting on you.”
Ria cried and stormed off.
If Wally Bzdell, a sport psychologist who works with top college athletes – including at Union College – had been at the field that day, he’d have had some deep questions about Ria’s behavior.
“I’d want to understand what’s going on for that person. What are they experiencing? What are their thoughts? What are they telling themselves about themselves and the situation and their abilities and what this means about them and their relationships with their loved ones,” Bzdell said. “I’d like to know where their mind is going that’s triggering such a strong physical and emotional response.”
All of this from youth soccer?
Of course, Bzdell is right. Perhaps especially for kids as young as Ria, who are just beginning to explore their place in the world, activities like soccer can unleash a lot. These activities can force kids to question their role on a team and produce big feelings for which they don’t have the nuanced language to articulate.
“Her words at age four would probably be ‘my stomach was really upset,’ and ‘something didn’t feel right,’ and ‘I was scared,’” Bzdell said. “She’s not going to be able to describe that ‘I was doubting myself and my ability to handle this, and there was a fear of failure.’”
As a dad, seeing Ria’s turmoil produced some big questions inside me. What was making Ria so upset? And by encouraging her to participate in soccer, was I somehow scarring her irreparably?
Ria has always had a fire in her. Sometimes this emerges as burning passions, an intense focus on whatever she’s doing – be it coloring, scootering or pretending to be a firefighter. But other times it manifests as pure fury. As an infant she’d cry inconsolably nearly every day at 5 p.m. And now, as a prekindergartener, she’s still prone to throwing high-pitch screaming fits.
Kathleen and I are working with a therapist to learn coping strategies we can transfer to Ria. Our job is to help her self-regulate. Kathleen describes Ria as standing on a high platform, incessantly at risk of falling. We do what we can to push her back from the edge, but, ultimately, Ria needs a bigger platform.
Of course, I don’t want to give the wrong impression of Ria. The vast majority of the time she’s an incredible little lady. At school, Ria is a teacher’s helper. On the playground, she’s usually quick to introduce herself to other kids. At home, she’s mostly cooperative enough to be asleep by 7:30. She’s creative and funny, if a little sassy. So often, she’s a delight.
Except when she’s not.
Some of Ria’s behavior is a result of her natural temperament and her tendency to feel things deeply. But some of it is surely the result of life circumstances. When Ria was 3, she became a big sister. That’s never an easy adjustment. Add in that we moved across the country from Seattle two months after baby brother, Callum, was born, and Ria’s world truly did flip upside down.
It’s probably not a surprise then that Ria’s first major meltdown at soccer came during a visit from my in-laws, who still live in Seattle. Because in the weeks prior, soccer actually went pretty well. Ria happily participated in practice, kicking the ball through her teammates’ legs to unfreeze them in a game of “Cone Monster.” During actual “matches,” she ran on the edges of the mob that formed around the ball. She even scored a goal during the first week.
We’d enrolled her in soccer to give her exactly this kind of experience. We wanted something social, something active, something that could reinforce ideals of cooperation and sportsmanship. Mostly, we wanted her to have fun. That’s why she does other activities, too. She’s in gymnastics, she’s taken swimming lessons, she just started piano.
Bzdell said this kind of exploring is what kids Ria’s age should be doing.
“Those years of 4 to 11 or 12 are really years to sample as many activities as you can,” he said.
When a kid turns 13, that’s when a narrower focus can start to come into view as talents and interests begin to solidify, he said.
At Ria’s age, something like youth soccer is about learning teamwork, developing a baseline of athleticism and building confidence. And it’s about having fun with friends.
But when Ria refused to participate in soccer one week and then had a repeat performance at practice and during the following week’s game, I began to wonder whether soccer – and team sports generally – could do more harm than good. My mind jumped to the online videos of parents shouting at refs and tackling coaches. I wondered if there is simply too much adrenaline and toxic masculinity baked into competitive ventures, even at the youngest levels.
Jeffrey Segrave, a professor of health and human physiological sciences at Skidmore College, says youth sports in America have, by and large, become too rigid. We spend too much time in formal programs and have lost touch with simply playing with neighborhood kids in the backyard.
“There’s a real creativity involved in the informal backyard games, which is largely gone in the formal situation,” Segrave said. “So to me, it’s what they’re not learning that is problematic.”
Segrave said formal youth sports programs teach important skills such as how to be competitive while developing friendships, as well as technical athletics skills.
But they remove some of the essence of childhood.
Segrave told me about Norway, where they’ve changed youth sports to put them more in kids’ hands. If the kids don’t feel like playing that day, they don’t play. There’s no keeping score, no postseason.
“It didn’t diminish their enjoyment, and, in fact, it enhanced their enjoyment,” Segrave said. “It enhances their sense of belonging with their friends, and their reaffirmation of friendships. And they didn’t find it really diminished the competitive ethic. So, there were positive outcomes.”
Leave it to Scandinavia to develop a youth sports utopia.
Still, I didn’t feel as though the Albany Youth Soccer program was worryingly rigid. Ria’s coach was an elementary school principal, adept at keeping kids on task without applying too much pressure. During games, no one kept score, and parents cheered for kids on all teams. Sure, the setting may be overwhelming to a little kid, with throngs of parents surrounding more than a dozen fields of screaming and running children.
But, frankly, I thought part of Ria’s issue might be that she didn’t take to soccer as easily as she’s taken to, say, gymnastics. While in the gym she has the strength to pull herself up on the rings and the balance to practically run across the beam, on the soccer field she lacked the resolve to go after the ball, and often fell when other players ran toward her.
Taking all this into account, I figured soccer may simply not be Ria’s thing, and my wife and I agreed there was no reason to pressure her into playing. Except then, even after meltdowns, Ria was adamant about showing up the next time. She liked putting on her uniform and strapping on her shin guards. As mad at herself as she got when she stubbornly refused to participate, she was equally as proud when during practice she could dribble the ball at “cheetah speed.” Clearly, nothing about youth soccer and Ria’s range of reactions to it was simple.
The day the soccer season ended, with us leaving early because Ria didn’t want to play, my wife and I were enjoying the sunshine as our son, Callum, toddled through the grass. I went in the house to coax Ria to join us, but she refused, letting out those heartbreaking whimpers. Sitting next to her on the couch, I asked what was wrong, and, of course, she couldn’t really explain. She may have said something about a stomach ache, but I can’t recall. Then, looking out the window at Kathleen and Callum, I had a thought.
“Are you mad because Mom and I are paying so much attention to your brother right now?”
At soccer, either Kathleen or I would have to watch Callum. He’s a little guy on the move and requires constant tracking. Perhaps Ria had looked up from the field on one too many occasions and found either me or Kathleen focused intently on her brother when we were supposed to be there for her game.
On the couch, I reminded my daughter that her mom and I are 100% on Team Ria.
“No you’re not. You’re on team Callum,” she said.
It was quite the gut punch. I hugged and kissed her, but deep down I knew it meant we had a lot more work to do.
Then again, what young family doesn’t have more work to do? Isn’t this all part of the process? You dabble in one activity after the other – in soccer, in piano, in swimming – and you determine what speaks to you and what goes over your head. All the while you hopefully remember that none of this defines you but is rather one small piece of many that make up who you are.
We’re all mothers and fathers, daughters and sons. We’re students and teachers, writers and readers. We should be in constant dialogue with ourselves and our loved ones about what makes us happy and what doesn’t.
We play soccer, but we aren’t soccer players.
This is an awful lot to take away from youth soccer, I realize. But isn’t that part of the point? What are youth sports if not vessels for personal growth? That, and having a little fun.
I asked Bzdell if he thought we should sign Ria up for soccer next season, and to my surprise, he said we should get her involved in soccer sooner than that – as long as she was interested. Only, Bzdell said, we should change the format. For now, forget about uniforms and organized games. Forget about the competitive aspects – those can come later or from another facet of life. Definitely forgo a scoreboard, he said.
“Maybe start by you and (Ria) and her mom kicking the ball around in the backyard,” Bzdell suggested.
The family kicking the ball. I liked the sound of that, because then we’d all be on the same team.
Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.