Saturday, 19 May 2012

Philosophical Reflections on Soccer Club

Today was my three year old son's last soccer practice (except we've been calling it football, just to confuse the issue).  We signed him up for this because a friend of his was doing it, because we wanted him to be doing some kind of sport activity (something not covered at school) and because football is so deeply rooted in British culture and we wanted him to have some experience of it for when we go back to the UK to live.  Obviously, they weren't doing actual football games, just little games to practise various skills: red light, green light; tails; egg hunt; sleeping giant.

Unfortunately, things did not go well.  While my son certainly enjoyed parts of every session, he wanted us to stay with him at all times, and every week we tried to find a happy medium between sitting on the sidelines and keeping him feeling happy and secure.  I got frustrated as I found myself in the role of helicopter parent, repeating what his coach said, and guiding him through each activity.  For the first few weeks, there were several other parents in this position, but by the end, I was the only one (the others having dropped out or successfully weaned their child).

We ended up leaving early most weeks (if only by five or ten minutes), but the main reason we didn't give up was my own obstinacy.  I felt we should set him an example of finishing what we started.  Either that, or we've just put him off the idea of football and team-based sports altogether.  I'm going to cross my fingers that it's the former.  At least for this last session, I was able to spend most of it on the sidelines, while he followed the coaches' instructions.

I have had a good deal of time to think about all the reasons why my son lacked the confidence to leave us cheering from the sidelines: specifically what the club was doing wrong.  My ire was sparked by the first session which seemed hopelessly disorganised.  Email communication was poor to the point that we showed up on the first day, with no idea where we were supposed to go (games for all ages are going on simultaneously across the school pitches) and it took us fifteen minutes to find the right place, at which point we had to join a huge line to sign in. 

By the time we got to join the session, twenty minutes after it had started, there were something like thirty children in the group with just three coaches trying to organise them.  Said coaches, all youthful volunteers, were operating under the illusion that every three year old automatically knew what dribbling was.

Fortunately, the following sessions only had a dozen or so children to two coaches and were less chaotic, but while they diligently led the children through the activities, there was very little attempt to foster a sense of team.  Half the time, the coaches forgot to introduce themselves at the start of the class, and at no time did they ask any of the children their names (excepting one week when we had a different coach). 

Consequently, nobody ever really got to know each other, and I think this had a big impact on my son wanting us with him.  He needed somebody he knew there, and he didn't know the coaches or the other children (his friend, who had similar difficulties, gave up after a few weeks).  I remember when I was teaching toddlers, the importance of getting the children to learn each other's names was something I discovered and utilised early.  I have actually just emailed the organisers about this (as nicely as possible), because I am trying not to be the person who grumbles about something instead of trying to fix it.

Of course, today, it finally occurred to me that I should have been taking positive action all along instead of blaming the poor inexperienced souls who were willing to give up their Saturday mornings to coach the next generation.  I could have encouraged my son to go up to the Coach every session and introduce himself.  I could have talked to the other children there, asked them their names, and guided my son into interacting with them.

I did none of these things because I am a shy introvert with rotten social skills.  But I want to improve myself and have my children do better, so starting off these good habits will benefit all of us.  It's too late for the soccer club, but next time we do something like this, I resolve to be more pro-active.

The other thing that would probably have helped would be to get there early.  We kind of got into the habit of getting there late to minimise the ordeal, but a couple of times we arrived early enough to just kick the ball about beforehand.  That did wonders to relax my son and functioned as a kind of emotional warm up exercise. 

Similarly, most sessions we went as a family, and one parent would play with our daughter while the other assisted our son.  She generally enjoyed herself hugely, practising her walking around the sidelines, but I think she was too much of a distraction for my son.  If one of us had stayed at home with her while the other went with him, that might have worked better.

Still changing all these probably won't fix my son's clinginess, and I should hold myself accountable for a tendency to helicopter parent.  Today, when I was able to sit and watch for quite a long period of time, I caught myself yelling to my son every now and then anyway, instead of letting the coaches deal with it.  I have officially become everything I hate.

It's important for me that he has other authority figures in his life, and if I want him to let me step back, then I have to keep myself back, even if the coach is currently looking in the other direction, attending to another child.  My son is not going to suffer physical or emotional harm if he's left hesitating for ten seconds until the coaches spot him.

I've been trying to talk to my son directly about how important it is that he learns to listen from other people and my feelings on the subject suddenly crystallised into 'toddler logic' for me today.  I explained to him:

"Everybody has something different to teach us; the more people we can listen to, the more we can learn."

I'm not sure how much of this sentiment he took in today, but I'll remember that wording for future use.  As I said, this is something I strongly believe in, but I can't expect him to follow such recommendations if he doesn't understand why.  My hope is that if he internalises this, it will be easier for him to let me go.

Besides all these abstract parenting lessons, our brief stint at soccer club had some more practical benefits as well.  I have made due note of the warm-up exercises (balloon and butterfly especially) for future reference.  I'm always on the look out for things you can do at circle-time!

While our first experience with soccer has had mixed results, I would be willing to try something similar again, although I think we'll wait a good long while to let the battles of this one fade in the memory.  A fresh start would be a very good idea.


  1. My mother's advice in similar situations was - speak to people or they won't like you. Which of course put more pressure on the situation and made me retreat further from social interaction.

    1. Yeah... it's a fine line between encouragement and pressure, isn't it?

      I've added your blog to my roll. I hope writing it all out is good therapy for you!

  2. You're so brilliant at reflecting on your experiences and learning from them! Sounds like a really instructive episode. I'm secretly hoping my children won't have any interest in organized activities of any kind...

    1. I confess that this was something we inflicted on my son rather than him showing a desire to do it. Perhaps I should be taking that into account as well!