We thought our four-year-old twin daughters would love soccer. On family walks, they are always running, jumping, or dancing down the road, and we thought soccer might give them the opportunity to do more of that. So, we enrolled them in a local summer recreational league, borrowed and bought a few pieces of gear and socks, and cleared our schedule on Monday nights for the next six weeks.
As it turns out, we were wrong. So, so wrong.
Imagine with me: a steamy summer six o’clock night, and four children waiting by the side of the van while mom grabs the diaper bag, water bottles, purse, and baby carrier. The baby immediately starts kicking as soon as he gets in the carrier, and the six-year-old whines that she’s tired. The twins insist on holding my hands, legs, or shirt as we walk across the dusty gravel parking lot to the field.
We are early, so we pick a spot of grass and try to talk through how fun! this is going to be. The girls are unconvinced. Meanwhile, I surreptitiously look at the other kids who have arrived early and realize that I, never having been in soccer, have outfitted both my girls with the shin guards on the outside of the socks, instead of under them. I peel the baby off my back and get to work rearranging the sock/shin guard/shoe combo on my daughters.
After this exercise in sweaty sock wrangling, I ply the kids with snacks and water and glance at my phone. My husband should be here soon. Good. We turn our attention back to the field where a few kids are starting to kick soccer balls around. More parents and kids arrive. They seem better equipped – lawn chairs, blankets, coolers, wagons. I start to sweat just thinking about standing back up and putting on the baby carrier and baby again.
Then the real fun begins. The first night is drill night, which involves stations and coaches and lots of movement. I look at my pile of stuff on the sidelines and sigh. Meanwhile, the girls aren’t jazzed about kicking the ball between orange cones. As in really, not jazzed. More like the opposite of jazz, like Phyrigian wailing. They are pulling at their jerseys, crying because they’re hottttttt, and I’m doing my best to mimic David Beckham crossed with a Vikings cheerleader (jean shorts and a baby carrier notwithstanding) as I clumsily maneuver the ball and cheer for them to do the same.
The first session continues on like this, except that my husband arrives to take over the baby so I can focus on helping the girls do drills, which equates to me jumping in and out of hula hoops with the rest of the four-year-olds while my daughters refuse, cry, or walk mopily through the exercise.
By the time the hour is finished, we are all red-faced, sweating, and ultra-cranky-town. To top it off, the girls want to get ice-cream because they heard other parents promising it to their little future soccer stars for their good efforts. I wait to tell my children their behavior warrants otherwise until we are safely in the van with all windows shut. The screaming lasts for sixteen minutes straight.
Needless to say, I was secretly glad we were on vacation and missed soccer the next week. But the week after, we were back again. This time, it was a scrimmage on the field, and the girls were having none of it. I found myself back in the middle of the preschool action, holding hands, cajoling, wiping tears, and basically doing anything I could think of to get them to play.
Nothing worked. At one point, I took a deep breath and tried to call up some of the wisdom from last year’s MOPS (mothers of preschoolers) mentors. Try to imagine how your child is feeling. How can you help them through that? So I got down on my knees, gently pushed my daughter’s bangs out of her caramel brown eyes, and asked why she didn’t want to play. It’s scary, she sniffed. I’m afraid those kids will kick me.
I couldn’t figure out how to explain to her that getting kicked is a strong possibility, but that the game was still fun. So I squeezed her tight, told her she was brave, and asked her to try a little bit longer.
Honestly, I had no idea what else to do. I wanted to quit. I wanted to tell her it was okay, we were all hot, and tired, and not really having as much fun as we hoped. I wanted to tell her I was terrible at sports as a kid, and that we could just try another activity. Preferably one with air conditioning. I wanted to be the nice mom, the one who went through the Dairy Queen drive-thru anyway because I hated seeing how upset my daughters were.
But another side of me whispered that even though this was a hard hour each week, it was worth pushing through. We’ve tried really hard to encourage our kids not to quit, whether it’s picking up toys, finishing a project, or helping us out around the house. Letting them quit soccer after two weeks seemed backward of everything we’d been teaching them.
I got home that night and stood at the kitchen sink later, rehashing the ridiculousness to my husband. I went on and on, overanalyzing and complaining. The baby. The heat. The dinner hour. The whining. In my head, my list continued until I realized something. It wasn’t really the kids who wanted to quit soccer. In fact, neither of them had mentioned quitting at all.
It was me.
I didn’t want to do the difficult work of guiding them through this hard experience. I didn’t want to be the mom on the sidelines cheerily shouting at my kids to follow the ball or get in the game. I wanted soccer to come naturally to them, without them having to work for it.
Life’s not really like that though. Everything worth doing turns out to be at least partially work, regardless of natural talent or ability. Taking them out before they had the chance to get over their fears wasn’t going to do them, or me – in the long run – any favors.
So on Monday night, we went back to soccer. We worked through the whining of putting on the socks and combing the hair into ponytails. We set our things down on the sidelines, got out a ball, and kicked it around. And when the time came for the game to start and my daughters to go in, they got up without whining. They stood on the field and walked after the ball. One of them even took the initiative to throw the ball inbounds a few times.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was VAST improvement. They were no tears, no fits, and more importantly, little glimmers of compliance. Sure, they didn’t quite go after the ball or kick it yet, but they were there with better attitudes, and so was I.