hen it comes to purifying the essence of humanity, there is no crucible hotter than the cluster of parents at a youth soccer field on Saturday morning.
Most of the time at our weekly games everyone keeps a cool perspective on things. The kids are young so the competitive-factor is low and the “have fun”-factor is high. But these are our kids we’re talking about. Put together a bunch of parents living vicariously through their children, mix in a diverse collection of personalities, add a dash of competition and what you have is a powder keg just waiting for a lit fuse.
I am well aware of the over-enthusiastic-parent-on-the-sidelines-of-a-youth-athletic-event stereotype (tip of the hat to Mr. Chavez at our high school basketball games). I know my own passions run high, particularly when it comes to my kids, so on soccer morning Saturdays I try really hard to keep that beast in its cage. That being said, there was an – *event* – this weekend where my daughter was singled out by a couple of her coaches. When it happened I’m glad to say I didn’t go all Bruce Banner right there on the soccer field, but it was pretty startling how quickly I transformed from the tranquil, rational Dr. DorkDaddy into “HULK SMASH!!!”
After all, when you come after my daughter you come after me.
A full weekend (and a couple of facebook rage-posts) later the beast is back in his cage and I’m ready to use my blog as a platform for rational discussion. I’ll share with you all the impartial details, make my closing arguments and then let you, The Jury, decide who was in the right.
A little background:
1) First and foremost, it needs to be said that parents who volunteer their time as youth sports coaches (good or bad) should be lauded from the mountain top. These people are glue that holds a community together. To anyone out there who’s ever coached a community sports team, thank you.
2) My daughter can be a little… bossy. On the soccer field she puts as much effort into telling her teammates where to stand and what to do as she does chasing the actual ball around. Some would call that “obnoxious,” others would call it “leadership”. In any case, I can appreciate how that behavior could rankle some people. C’est la vie.
3) Our head coach was gone on vacation all week, leaving the assistant coach(es) in charge of practices and the game.
4) During practice that week one of the girls got injured. There was concern of a broken ankle that required a visit to the Dr.’s office and an X-ray. Thankfully it was just a sprain, but the player had to miss the game. The details of what exactly happened are sketchy, but the consensus seems to be my daughter was in close proximity when the injury occurred.
On to the events in question:
Just before the game starts Soccer Mom/Assistant Coach #2 comes up to UnDorkMommy and says “Can I talk to you a moment?” She leads my wife away from the crowd, towards the players huddled on the sidelines and they start talking together quietly. Admittedly, the following details are second-hand as my wife was not expecting to get deposed by me after the fact. But what she relayed to me was that Soccer Mom/Assistant Coach #2 told her as they walked towards the players that there was some feedback from some of the other mommies and/or coaches on other teams that my daughter was being a little too “aggressive”. The two assistant coaches were planning on having a talk with Episode IV about it before the game and they wanted my wife to be there when it happened.
By the time my wife and Soccer Mom/Assistant Coach #2 made it to the kids, Soccer Mom/Assistant Coach #1 has taken the initiative and was already finishing up “the talk” with my daughter on her own. The game started with my daughter sitting out the first quarter – which in and of itself isn’t unusual but given the context becomes a little suspect.
Needless to say, this was news to us, especially given the fact that we’ve been to every game and every practice and haven’t observed anything inappropriately “aggressive”. If anything we’ve been proud that she’s starting to mix it up a little more and get herself into the scrum of girls clustered around the ball, as opposed to passively staying out of the fray as she has in years past. Granted, she’s taller than most of the girls on the team, and that makes her more of a physical presence… but “aggressive”? I don’t think so. It’s not like anyone’s coming away with a fat, bloodied lip. She isn’t tripping anyone, pulling hair or scratching at eyes. She may be using her body to get into the crowd and get to the ball, but that’s what you’re supposed to do. That’s soccer. That’s sports.
We spend the entire first quarter trying to make sense of this new development. I’m probing my wife for details about what exactly was said, by whom and in what context. She’s doing her best to communicate to me while she’s still trying to process. But basically all we’ve got is that someone thinks Episode IV is being too “aggressive” on the soccer field, and the coaches have now told her she needs to pare it back. Now I’m madly trying to process all the variables and implications, watching her across the field sitting out the first quarter, and naturally I’m starting to get in a lather. One of the other team moms hears our conversation and says to us “’Too aggressive’? You’re kidding, right?” She reaffirms that she’s never seen my daughter do anything that would lead her to that conclusion.
No matter what, clearly this was something that would necessitate a quiet conversation with my daughter after the game, and to do that I was going to need some facts. While the assistant coaches were busy managing the girls between quarters I quietly made my way around the field to where the assistant coaches are doing their thing. I can hear first-hand what’s going on. As they assign positions for the 2nd quarter they ask who wants to be on offense and who wants to play defense. My daughter enthusiastically raises her hand and says she wants to play offense. Assistant Coach #1 makes an effort to keep her response between her and my daughter, but I was close enough to hear exactly what she said. Here are her words to my daughter, verbatim:
“I know you want to play offense, but you remember that little problem we talked about before the game? You’re going to play defense this quarter so you can work on it.”
Oh… It. Is. On.
As the quarter started and the girls got to playing, I silently moved up behind Assistant Coach #1. “Obviously we’re going to have a talk with Episode IV about all this after the game,” I said over her shoulder, eyes fixed on the game. “I want to make sure I’ve got my details right so I’m going to need a little context from you.”
“Oh!” she said, visibly startled. Obviously she wasn’t expecting to hear a deep, sonorous, authoritative but conspicuously calm and rational voice resonate suddenly from behind her while she was focused on getting the quarter started. There wasn’t much I could do about that. “Well, um, we’ve got some feedback from some moms and some coaches from other teams that Episode IV is being a little too aggressive.”
“OK. Fair enough,” I replied. “Just so I’m clear, is it a sportsmanship issue? Is she playing dirty? Is she pulling jerseys or taking cheap shots? That sort of thing?”
“Oh no. Nothing like that,” said Soccer Mom/Assistant Coach #1.
“So it’s not like she’s playing dirty. She isn’t kicking anyone in the shins or throwing a tantrum if things don’t go her way. Her heart is in the right place.”
“Right, right. She’s just really enthusiastic and that’s making her play really aggressively”
“So what’s the lesson I need to reinforce here?” I asked. “Do you want me to tell her she needs to be a little less enthusiastic? Should I tell her she needs to be more passive?” I was using that tone that my wife hates so much. It’s the tone that on the surface sounds respectful and reasonable enough, but just under the surface makes it very clear how ridiculous I think your position is.
“No, no” she responded, notably flustered. “I told her she just needs to tone it down a bit.”
“I see,” I said in the same tone, hands behind my back, chin up, eyes still fixed on the game rather than on her. “Thank you. I think I have everything I need.” I walked back to the parent side of the field without excusing myself and relayed the details of the conversation to my wife.
At halftime Episode IV came over to us to get her water bottle. “Hey, Honey. What was it your coach told you before the game?” we asked.
“She said I was being too aggressive and I need to not be so aggressive” she replied. “Also *NAME REDACTED* said that it was my fault *NAME ALSO REDACTED* isn’t playing today.”
I kneeled down, put my arm around my strong little girl and whispered in her ear “We are super proud of how hard you are playing. Accidents happen, and what happened at practice was an accident. That’s nobody’s fault. As long as you’re a good sport, as long as you’re nice to everyone on the field, I want you to play as hard as you can. You keep playing aggressive, no matter what anyone tells you.”
She looked up at me with her knowing smile and ran back to her team. Worth noting: in the 3rd quarter she was thrilled to play in the (notably non-aggressive) goalie position.
Sorry, Supes. Not on this team. You’d be too aggressive. Try a boys team.
This is 7-year-old, non-competitive, girls soccer. This should not be the sort of thing that gets a parent so worked up that he can’t see patients on Monday morning (my first patient today and I had a good laugh about that). But this is also my daughter we’re talking about.
I want my daughter to be a strong woman. That kind of strength will serve her well in life. Women have enough to deal with in the world without getting the message from the authority figures that they should be less aggressive.
What then IS the message that we are sending? What is the lesson that we are teaching here?
This is sports – albeit 7-year-old, non-competitive girls soccer. Priority #1 should be “have fun.” The other priority #1 should be “be a good sport.” Beyond that, what lessons should we be teaching them? Sports are as much about competition as they are about work-ethic. Working hard, playing hard, being aggressive, learning how to be a good citizen in those contexts, these are some of the most valuable lessons we learn from sports.
“Be less aggressive”?!? Unless someone is being unsportsmanlike, I can’t think of a single context where that message is appropriate in an athletic setting. On the contrary, if this had been a boys team at the same level a coach would be fired for giving the advice “be less aggressive.” In fact, ostensibly, it isn’t hard to imagine that if she were a boy, Episode IV would have been celebrated for being aggressive, and encouraged to be more so.
On top of all of that, my wife made the observation that my little lady getting that message from another woman, a grown woman, adds another shameful layer to the entire affair.
In any case we used the entire experience to reaffirm to our daughter the value of sportsmanship, the fact that we are incredibly proud of her, and the notion that sometimes adults, even adults in a position of authority, *ESPECIALLY* adults in a position of authority… can be wrong
Today is Monday. It’s a new week. The Head Coach is back and my pressure gauge is safely out of “critical” back down into the green zone.
I am more than willing to acknowledge the possibility that I am way off base here, and if you readers tell me as much in the comments below I will accept it with humility.
But one thing is clear: whether it’s me or Soccer Mom/Assistant Coach(es)#1(and#2), this weekend one of us had our priorities way out of whack.
Your thoughts are welcome.