Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Counter-programming on the soccer field

            This past weekend brought Pip and Polly’s first two soccer games for the spring season. It was a full weekend for us all.
            Pip had a very good weekend. Not only did he score his first ever (and the team’s only) goal, but he also began figuring out how to deploy his energies on the field. In the defensive box he used a combination of confidence and assertiveness to thwart oncoming attacks. During his quarters upfield, he moved well, largely avoiding getting sucked in to ball chasing and instead playing his position and moving into open spaces. It was this movement that enabled him to score the goal as he and one other player on his team were spread across the top of the box when the ball squirted along the line towards them. Pip stayed a touch wider and when his teammate’s shot bounced off the goal keeper, he was able to gather the carom and lift the ball over the keeper and into the goal. It was not a very graceful play but more often than not that’s how goals are scored. Pip was in the right place and was rewarded for it. He also spent a quarter playing goal during the second game, stopped a couple of shots, re-distributed the ball well by throwing instead of kicking it, and took command of the defense. The general success of playing well made the weekend as a whole very fun for him.
            Polly also had a good weekend, though she did not have as many definable moments of success as Pip. She spent most of her time on the field staying out of the way of others, moving around but largely sliding to the side before too many people got around her. Later she told me that she was scared of getting into the scrum of kids. As the youngest player on the field and someone who has only seen three to four soccer games in her life, I can’t fault her for feeling that way. It was the first time she’s been surrounded by such an environment and amidst the swirling chaos it’s hard to understand the underlying order much less what one should do to try and shape it. In the Saturday game she had a couple of chances to stop a ball in the open field and she did well handling it and sending it back in the correct direction. This leads me to believe that in time she’ll be more willing to get into the middle of things and work to clear the ball away.


            What I find myself needing to do with Polly now to make her into a better player is to undo some of the half-decade’s worth of behavioral training she’s undergone thus far. In other words, I have to encourage her to become more aggressive.
This goes against everything we’ve done with her since she was a baby. Our family’s general approach to living is one of exercising patience, calm, and respect for others. These qualities obviously doesn’t come naturally to children (or us to be honest), and Polly has been known to jump on Pip’s back for no particular reason or slam down a LEGO in frustration when it doesn’t go together the way she wants it to. Ava and I have worked steadily and consistently to replace those impulses with ones that lead Polly to stop, take a step back, and collect herself when faced with a problem. And this has largely worked. She’s a kind and considerate friend to her peers and – when not tired and cranky – a conscientious and respectful kid with adults. She still gets upset when her LEGOs fall apart, but she doesn’t slam them about the way she used to when she was younger.
            Now, as I had to do with Pip, I have to figure out how to undo some of this training to get Polly in the right mindset for the soccer field. In Pip’s case, an increased familiarity with the dynamics of a game did most of the work. In the fall he was reluctant to bump into any one because he didn’t want to make them upset or violate the spirit of the rules. He understands better now the dynamics of when contact is necessary and useful after getting banged around some towards the end of the fall season. He came into the spring looking to make an impact, and he has learned take the ball away from people through them with determination and persistence. This requires a touch of meanness, a touch of fury that wills one to keep banging away at things even when the ball doesn’t immediately do what you want. It also requires finding a touch of darkness inside yourself that for a brief moment hates the person with the ball and wants only to exert your power over them. This seemed to crystalize for Pip during a defensive series during Sunday’s game when it took four tries to finally dislodge a ball from the box. He went after it each time with a focused and furious determination that was exactly what he needed in that situation.
            Polly possesses that kind of spirit as well, but it may be some time before she’s ready to channel it. She loved being able to bounce around on the field and celebrate when her teammates did something well. She was a happy pixie with a long pony tail, smiling and laughing and having fun. In some ways I’d rather her just stay that way, but that’s not going to do her much good as a soccer player.
          At the same time, she’s not yet big enough to crash into people effectively and not yet strong enough to exert her will physically in a scrum. What I’ll really need to do with her is get her comfortable with staring down another player in the open field and sticking her foot in his way. I guess that will come as long as I’m patient with her. I can’t let my own aggression undermine the aggression I want to emerge in her. 

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