Because there is no lanyard-making team or origami league, I sign my seven-year-old daughter up for soccer. Her solitary pursuits eclipse the group ones — art, piano, and that all-encompassing reading thing she’d rather do than just about anything else. Since she’s got the independent play down pat — I don’t ever worry that she won’t know how to entertain herself — it’s clearly time to expand the group activities, give her those early learning experiences of what it means to be a team player and how it feels to be an integral part of a group.
She’s silent and doesn’t smile when I tell her. “It’s going to be fun,” I grin and nod. “So fun! You’ll have teammates. You’ll learn new things.” She looks at me askance. “It feels good to kick a soccer ball,” I add, but I’m such a hypocrite. I have no such knowledge or experience. I only imagine that’s how it feels.
The only balls that cross my sporting path are the ball bearings in my roller blades. I ice skate and windsurf. I’m athletic; I just don’t do balls. This is because I was that short skinny kid who always got mowed down in dodge ball, hit in the chest in softball, and plowed over in rainy-day giant earthball games in the cafeteria, which has given me a bad case of Ball Panic Disorder. And balls know how much I fear them. Today, whenever I’m on a playground, one will whish by, dangerously close, or hit me in the head. So, why is a noncompetitive sports dunce like me signing up my child for soccer?
I tell her I never played the game, but I think it would have been great if I had. Boys didn’t even play soccer where I grew up. I first learned about the sport when my father, who played soccer in Argentina as a teen, sat completely captivated watching a match on TV. My cello-playing, opera-loving father played soccer? Kicked balls? Was a member of a team?
Now my daughter has a chance to bridge this generational soccer gap. But signing her up for the sport really doesn’t have anything to do with my father. Sure, he’ll be happy, share some soccer stories of his own, but the answer is simple, really. I want her to have the opportunities I never had. Get ball-savvy. Avoid a future of Ball Fright.
And also, it wouldn’t hurt to expand my social network, too. It’s not like you forge relationships with other parents at the library or bookstore, or at a yearly piano recital. So, yes, soccer is also for me.
The sport becomes a family affair. My husband trains to be a referee. I volunteer as Team Manager — making the team roster, organizing the snack rotation, assisting with basically everything that doesn’t have to do with the balls. I buy a fleecy jacket with the league logo embroidered in bright red.
Unfortunately, our gung-ho nature doesn’t transfer into a go-for-it attitude with the one actually playing on the team. “Yay!” she cheers when it rains and a practice or game is canceled. She discovers that the field is perfect, not for running and scoring goals but for squatting and making daisy chains. The ball? She does love the ball, names him Bob and draws a face on him. He makes for a comfortable footrest while she reads in the car.
And those new associations I hope to make with other parents? Not so easy when your child is huddled in your lap, when you have to spend your valuable schmoozing minutes coaxing your kid to get out there. “Just try it,” I tell her with a reassuring hug, even though what I really want to do is place both hands on her back and push her. “Just have fun, the team needs you,” I urge. Sometimes it works and she plays for a little while, but mostly we share a chair, observers together, staying well away from the ball.
“I just want to read,” she usually says from wherever I find her in the house — this time it’s hanging upside down from a bar stool in the kitchen — when she tells me she doesn’t want to go to practice. I flash on an image of me at her age, sunk in the big recliner chair in the living room, my Beverly Clearly books in a stack beside me. “Go outside!” my mother would say. “It’s good for you.” Which, I think, meant, Stop all that goddamn reading. Stop hiding. Get out there in the world, the sunlight. I hated hearing those words, just took my book outside on the hard concrete step and read there, squinting in all that bright light.
But now I’m the mother and I want my child outside, too, in the world, not escaping from it, exercising her body as well as her mind. I wish for her to be as comfortable at being a team player as she is at being alone, as contented running in a field of cheering fans as she is at sitting at the piano composing a song. To feel self-assured at a variety of things so when it comes times to choose she not only has options but also the confidence to keep trying new things. Even if those new things have nothing at all to do with a ball.
I tell her that she can read in the car, but we’re going to the practices, she’s not staying home. Thankfully, perseverance pays off. Practices become joyful, full of laughter and praise. She loves playing Red-Light Green-Light with Bob the soccer ball along in the run, and there are promises of golden trophies and an end-of-season party. She doesn’t complain much anymore when I tell her it’s time to put on her shin guards and soccer shoes. Sometimes she asks me to hold Bob on the way back to the car. I take him reluctantly, and hold him with both hands.
The playing comes in waves; sometimes she wants to, other times she’s not sure she wants to be in the game. I flash forward to years from now, picture her bent over a microscope studying cells in a university biology lab, or see her framed in a window holed up in a cozy winter cabin in Maine where she’s writing a novel and I think: will having played soccer even matter at all?
At the most recent game, on a bright big sky morning, she notices the opposing team is composed of much younger players. “Are you sure that’s the right team?” she asks. Although they all outweigh her, she does have a slight height advantage and this gives her newfound confidence to play fearlessly; she even scores a goal. I’m so thrilled to finally get to cheer for my own kid. She does so much running and kicking that she actually has to wipe the sweat from her brow.
“That looked so fun,” I say. “Aren’t you glad you played?” I can tell by her smile that she is, even if she doesn’t want to admit that soccer maybe isn’t so bad. Back in the car, she kicks off her mud-caked, spiky-soled shoes, takes gulps of cool water, and picks up the book from where she’s left it on the seat. The noise of the soccer field is muffled now as we drive away and she’s already returned to Laura and Mary at the banks of Plum Creek, to a world where clouds of prairie grasshoppers eclipse the sun.
As I drive, I plan a family game of soccer in my head. Friends are coming over tomorrow; we could go to the meadow at the top of our street. Perhaps it’s time I braved kicking the ball, I think. I sense something strange going on in the back seat of the car and turn around and see Bob, formerly a footrest, in motion. My daughter is dribbling the aqua soccer ball back and forth, her feet moving in rhythm as she reads. It continues almost all the way home.