Some of my favorite memories growing up in the Chicago suburbs revolve around soccer. Every weekend in the fall and spring I’d climb into the front seat of my dad’s Acura and we’d drive to some far-flung suburb I never knew existed.
I don’t remember most of the games I played as a member of the Fox Valley Strikers soccer club, but I remember those drives there and back. We would listen to tapes of Paul Simon, The Cars, Dire Straits. My dad would occasionally tell stories about his youth. He’d ask about my life, which probably felt more like an interrogation at the time. Or we’d sit in silence, taking in the endless flat terrain and odd billboard that northern Illinois had to offer on our route.
Those memories played in heavy rotation this week, as we prepared for my four-year-old daughter’s first soccer practice. I’m helping to coach her squad, which is populated with nine of the most enthusiastic and energetic toddlers you could ever hope to meet.
At this age, the gameplay doesn’t exactly resemble the beautiful game that we watched together when the us women’s national team won another World Cup in 2019. Still, it was fun to watch them negotiate cones while dribbling and take turns shooting on an unguarded net.
Summer was having a blast until it came time to scrimmage. That’s when all hell broke loose and she was lost in the swarm. She broke down in tears and spent most of the rest of the practice clinging tightly to my leg.
I was reminded in this moment that I needed to tread lightly — that even the best-intentioned parents can ruin it for kids.
I remember one such instance with a team we played against that hailed from a northwest suburb. Their coach’s entire game plan consisted of standing on the sidelines yelling, “Pass the ball to Carlos! He will score!” To the coach’s credit, he was right. Carlos was an 11-year-old God of the pitch who tortured us twice a season and stood as our greatest impediment come tournament time.
Summer’s meltdown also made me wary of how fragile a child’s relationship to sports can be at a young age. I imagine that the adults who were once Carlos’s teammates probably think that soccer kinda sucks.
Sports in America are often thought of in the commercial sense. But it’s important to remember that the vast majority of sports are not played at a professional or even collegiate level. Given the level of celebrity of all these pros, it’s easy to forget that most sports happen while no one is watching besides the athletes themselves and maybe a parent or two.
So why do we do it? For fun? Absolutely. Is it because secretly deep down I want my daughter to be the next Megan Rapinoe? Maybe. Or is it because I want her to have the same opportunity that I had to Learn cooperation, teamwork and maybe make some great friends along the way? Man, I hope so.
When we start to view sports as a construct and a framework through which we may bond and connect with other people, we can fall in love with them all over again.
When I think of my experience in youth sports, I don’t see a ball or a field or the trophies we lost to Carlos. I see my dad at the wheel, and I’m sitting in the front seat, wondering what the hell he’s thinking about.
I think I finally know. And it’s an honor to pay it forward.
This column first appeared on the The Kyle Koster Show podcast.