I get it now. I get it in a way I’ve never quite gotten it before. I understand why star athletes, prodigal musicians, and the like get lavish treatment regardless of how annoying, demeaning, and generally unlikeable they can sometimes be. I have played on little league and high school sports teams. I have performed in a highly competitive marching band (yes, there is such a thing). I’ve seen kids who can do something just a sliver better than others get extra chances and special treatment. I’ve even been one of those kids for a little while. Through it all I never fully understood why this thing happens, why the talk about rules and values and the team breaks apart so easily in the face of adversity. I am there now. I can see where all the principles break down. I can see where the coaches and managers of a prodigal teammate let garbage slide, cater to their whims, and defend them in irrational and contradictory ways when they do something wrong. I understand this now because we don’t have one.
When Pip signed up to play soccer for the first time this fall, I took a plunge as well by agreeing to help out the team as an assistant coach. I’d never coached before, but it seemed like a reasonable thing to do. I would be taking Pip to practice more often than not, and I like being able to help out with things much more than just sitting around watching. It also seemed like a low-intensity way to have some fun with Pip and to help him get better at the game.
This has largely been true with the exception of one thing.
Pip plays soccer in a local Under 8 league which means most of the kids are six and seven years old. The six-year-olds tend to be small and all over the place. The seven-year-olds tend to be bigger and, with many having played a year of Under 8 already, tend to be more in control of what’s happening on the field. Pip happened to land on a team where eight of the ten players are six-year-olds. Throw in the fact that neither Pip nor the other seven-year-old had played organized soccer before and this makes his team very young and very inexperienced. They don’t have the strength to really kick the ball down the field. They don’t have the speed to get around and through other players consistently. They just are not big enough to muscle the ball through other players and into the goal the way some of the other teams can. Next year, even without major skill improvements, they will be much better. One year’s worth of physical growth at this stage means that much. But right now they don’t have it and that means we lose. Every game.
The losing isn’t really that bad. Knowing that you’re going in to a game at a deficit, you set your sights accordingly. Good stops, correct throw-ins, nice passes take on an overwhelming significance. As coaches, we make a big deal about small positives and just smile when mistakes happen. We keep telling the kids that they are playing hard and that were proud of them for their efforts. And that’s all true. The kids are playing hard. They’re trying to do what we ask of them, and no one is quitting or hanging their heads. Fortunately, they’re mostly still young enough that they are happy to be playing regardless of the score.
It’s probably as good a situation as Pip could hope for as well. He gets to learn the game, to try out different positions, and make lots of mistakes without anyone getting frustrated with him. Since he tries hard, he gets to play a lot in the games. Since he is good at following directions and has improved the strength of his kicking, he gets to take goal kicks. He’s not going to light the world on fire, and he doesn’t have the consuming need to win. Right now, he just wants a chance to be out there and with this team he gets it.
But, from the sideline it’s hard to watch all that effort get expended by Pip and his teammates and have so little to show for it. In the middle of games, I’ve found myself shouting for kids to just take the ball and go with it, hoping a little bit of luck will come along to help get that ball through the defense and into the goal. If you have a player who can do that from time to time, it just makes things easier. Because when that kid scores, we can all cheer ‘Hurray’ and we can all say we contributed and somewhere along the way we can all say we scored and we won.
Human beings are addicts by nature. When something works, we want to do it again and again and again. As long as the good things keep coming, we’ll make deals with ourselves to hold off the rest of the junk until later. And when things happen to disrupt those workings, we find ways to keep them going, even as principles break down and rules get violated. I know this to be true because even in a recreational soccer league where the kids are having fun, we don’t have a star. And for a few minutes each game, I wish we did.