By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck
(Note: Article originally published in 2010):
My 13 year-old daughter plays soccer for a highly-ranked competitive team. She loves it. It is probably her favorite thing to do in the world. She and my 15 year-old son referee rec games on weekends as a part-time job. Last Saturday, I went to pick up my son from the game he was doing. I got there a little early and watched the last ten minutes. The girls were the same age as my daughter – 13U. The first thing that struck me was how different this game was from the ones I’ve grown accustomed to watching over the past several years. These girls were not tremendously skilled. They did not run particularly hard after loose balls and they were not very aggressive. There was little passing or development of plays; it was more kicking the ball downfield, back and forth. And after watching for a few minutes I remember thinking, “Thank goodness for rec sports.”
Compared to the elite level of sport I’d been seeing, there was much these girls were not doing. But there was a lot they were doing, too. They were clearly having fun. They were exercising. They were supporting their teammates. The only comments I heard from either of the coaches on either sideline were an occasional, “Get there, Brittany!” and “Great job, Sarah!” As dusk neared, the field took on a mix of golden sunlight and long shadows. In that context, the purity and innocence of kids playing a game together in harmony, with no overbearing pressure to win, no fear of consequences for making a mistake, just trying their best for no other sake but to get enjoyment out of the game, became striking to me. My daughter’s team would have literally beaten either of these teams by double-digits, but that isn’t what this was about. There are plenty of competitive avenues available for kids who want to pursue that route. Isn’t it wonderful to also offer something for those who don’t?
My son, who was refereeing this game, has long been a competitive baseball player, but he played several seasons of rec soccer. The screensaver on our home computer is set up to shuffle through all of our old digital photos and every now and then I’ll see one of him, as a little boy, on the soccer field. I look at these photos and think about how he played this sport just because he wanted to try it – he wasn’t worried about advancing to high school or college. It was just rec. However, I remember with shame how I used to get on him from the sidelines and tell him he wasn’t hustling, that he was standing around too much. I had put more value on his scoring goals than having fun. I wish I could have a do-over.
Shortly before the girl’s game ended Saturday afternoon there was a moment when the blue team had an open shot and their player got a good kick on it. It came hard to the goal, but right at the goalie, who reached up and caught it. It was a play that, on my daughter’s team, would not warrant so much as a clapping of hands because at that level every keeper stops that shot 100% of the time. But when this goalie caught the ball, all of her defenders cried out, “Nice play, Julia!” The fans on both sides applauded the tremendous kick and the great save. The goalie couldn’t help but let a huge, proud grin spread over her face as she ran out to punt the ball away. Will this girl ever know what it is like to win a State Cup, or get a college scholarship? Maybe not. But I can say for certain that at that instant she knew, as well as anyone ever has, how much fun it can be to play the game.
Brian Gotta is a former professional recreational youth baseball coach and volunteer Little League coach and board member. He is President of Help Kids Play, a collection of companies whose mission is to further the development and enjoyment of youth sports.