A scene from toothbrushing time on Thursday evening:
As we put away our toothbrushes, Pip looks up at me and stares. His eyes are basset-hound droopy with little freckled puffs of skin underneath. He pulls momentarily at the shorts on his turtle green pajamas, the ones with the monkey peeking out through a bunch of bananas. He tries to stretch the shorts back down to where they used to ride, but he’s grown so much recently they just pop right back in place, snug against his skin. After a second tug, he turns away and spits some leftover toothpaste into the sink. Then comes the following exchange:
Pip: My head is pounding.
Pip: My leg is sore.
Pip: My thumb hurts.
Me [trying to keep bedtime on track]: Well, it sounds like you had a fun time.
Pip [suddenly smiling in wonderment]: Yeah. Now I know why everyone wants to scrimmage.
This fall Pip is playing an organized sport for the first time. Last year in first grade, a couple of his friends started playing soccer. During recess and after school they would talk with Pip about what they were doing and who they would be playing that weekend. By the springtime, Pip was kicking a ball around the playground with them, shooting at the school walls, and playing games of one on one. He also began asking me questions about the game itself, what the rules were, how often teams scored, why players wore shin guards, etc. Ava bought him a ball, and we started passing it around the backyard after school and on the weekends. By the middle of the summer, Pip was certain. He wanted to try playing soccer.
While I was excited by his enthusiasm, I also worried that the reality of playing little league soccer would not be nearly as great as he imagined it would be. Pip loves to run and loves games where he gets to chase and be chased. However, the only time he’d dribbled a soccer ball around was with me or his friends and neither were trying that hard to take it away from him. Also, the only games he’d seen were the couple of World Cup matches we seen in June. Neither of these things could approximate the chaotic scrum that is the soccer of six and seven year olds.
After the first practice, my worries were validated. He didn’t like it. The drills were not as easy as he thought they would be. He struggled to kick the ball as far and as hard as he wanted. He couldn’t dribble as quickly as some of the other kids. He didn’t always understand what the coach wanted him to do. It was not the same as merrily kicking the ball around the backyard with a couple other friends.
He came home that evening uncertain that this soccer thing was going to work out. He told Ava he had fun – because he knew that’s what he was supposed to say – but then followed that statement up with a list of frustrations. He was not ready to chuck it all and do something else, but the question had been raised in his mind.
The next practice came three days later. At the start the head coach had the kids do a few warm-up moves - jogging forward, jogging backward, running with high knees, hopping with wide knees – then told them to sprint to the other end of the field. Now, as I already said, Peter likes to run. And, as it turns out he is also the oldest and tallest kid on the team. When the coach said go, he took off full blast, leaving everyone behind and reaching the other end several strides ahead of the next kid. When they turned around to go back Pip jogged the whole way with a big, toothy smile splashed across his face.
After that sprint he was in. Throughout the rest of the practice he felt more in control of what he was doing. He wasn’t bothered by the things he couldn’t immediately do. He didn’t let the antics of a couple of wandering kids distract him from what the coach was teaching. He took water breaks and immediately ran back on to the field to keep going. He knew now what he could do.
As the concluding activity of last week’s practices – the team’s third and fourth ones together - the head coach split the kids into two groups and organized a scrimmage. It was something to see. On one hand, the kids are old enough to play the game with something approaching skill. There were flashes of positional awareness, some legitimate defensive patience, and even an occasional pass. On the other hand, they’re still young kids susceptible to getting drawn into a kind of cannonball madness in which a scrum of players builds around the ball, kicking and slashing until it somehow pops out to the side and someone can run with it. Then the scrum barrels along in hot pursuit. In those moments, the game is closer to rugby than soccer.
Pip was thrilled to be a part of it all. He patrolled his part of the field, staying just outside the scrum and jumping on any opportunity to chase a ball down. (He wasn’t exactly sure what to do with it once he got it, but he’ll get there). As he waited for one of these opportunities to materialize his shoulders would roll in, his neck would stretch forward, and his hands would hover out away from his hips. He looked like a raptor getting ready to launch from its perch. A maniacal smile and hooting giggles accompanied his every move.
Pip’s team plays its first game on Saturday. I don’t know whether they will win or lose. They have a couple of players who attack well. They have a couple of players who possess a good feel for defense. I don’t know at this age and in this league how much of either is enough.
I do know that Pip will play, and will go after it with everything he has. I imagine he will get his share of bumps and probably wake up sore on Sunday morning. And chances are, regardless of the result, he will be ready to go back to practice again next week.