Believe or not, I was a pretty good little league baseball player. If there was better 8 year-old fielding shortstop in West Wichita, circa 1986, I’d like to meet him…of course, history has a way of allowing us to remember things the way we want, no sense in getting caught up in facts. As I got older, I wouldn’t say my skills diminished as much as my body stopped growing, and the other kids got better…much better. My playing time decreased, rapidly, and I looked to find someone to blame. In my case, it was easiest to blame my father. In my mind, he had put pressure on me to perform…too much pressure. So I did the unthinkable…I asked my father to stop attending my games. He stopped showing up and my playing time continued to drop, until finally, I got cut from the team. Although my Dad wasn’t to blame for my benching’s, I was sure I wouldn’t put pressure on my kids when I became a father of my own.
Four weeks shy of his sixth birthday, my oldest son, Henry was about to start in goal for the first time in a competitive soccer game. Turns out Henry acquired some of his ‘Ol Man’s hand eye coordination and has quickly showed a real gift for the little round ball. This year, my wife and I decided to enroll Henry into a competitive league in our area, complete with yelling coaches, score being kept, and parents that really, really care. So it was, on this particular Saturday, that Henry found himself, between the pipes, with all of us parents looking on. As the whistle blew to signal the start of the game, I was overcome with a weird sensation. As the ball rocked and rolled around the field, bouncing like a pinball amongst the clump of boys, my heart began to race. For reasons I don’t entirely understand, I found myself beginning to yell…”BE READY, HENRY!”. He didn’t look ready…, but why is he looking at me now? “WATCH THE GAME, NOT ME!”…what’s he doing?…he’s not even looking at the ball…oh no the ball…it’s coming right at ’em…I was sure my heart was going to explode.
As if it had been blown out of a cannon, the ball broke away from the pack and was now heading right towards my oldest. There was Henry, like a deer frozen in a head light, as the opposing forward approached and with one swift kick, as if in slow motion…the ball went right through Henry’s legs.
My first thought was, why are all these people screaming? Then I remembered…all those parents care. The crowd was simultaneously groaning and cheering. When, from the corner of my eye, she turned. She had been sitting there since before the game, making small talk with me…
“…where do you live? Oh really? My son goes to the same school, what teacher? Oh that’s great, us too. Don’t you just love this soccer team?…”
As my ears continued to ring from the groaning cheers, my emotions began to lava over…she turned and muttered, in the condescending voice only a mother can deliver…”It’s OK, I’m sure he’ll get the hang of it.”
My mind erupted with emotion:
“Get the hang of it? Get the hang of it? Do you know who the hell my son is! Ya, the one that scored the winning goal last week, the only one that can kick a forward ball with any real force! Is that your son sitting in the dirt, eating grass? Ya, thought so…Henry will “get the hang of it” as soon as your son “gets the hang of putting his shin guards on right!”
Luckily, that was my internal voice…
The external voice was saying something like “That’s OK, Henry. You’ll get’em next time.”
It wasn’t till later that my emotions for the game subsided enough for me to fully reflect. As I drove home, I was filled with questions, most notably, had I become my father? Was I becoming the very type of pressuring parenting I never intended to be? The feelings I had were real, but what was I feeling exactly? Why did I care, in the heat of that moment, so much about my son’s performance? My initial thought was something along the lines of “He has so much potential, and I just want to see him compete like he does in the backyard with his friends, after all, I’ve seen him stop those kind of shots in his sleep”…but that would be false parental rationalization on my part. The truth is, I want him to do well for me. We, as parents, do sometimes live vicariously through our children, and if we are not careful, we can want for our children what we really want for ourselves. It occurred to me that all I want for my kids is for them to be happy…and that happiness has nothing to do with soccer or sports.
As I pulled into my driveway, I began to realize that although I have three boys, I’m a rookie when it comes to my oldest. Every new experience for him, is a new experience for me. No matter how many diapers I’ve changed or boys I’ve potty-trained, I’ll never be fully prepared for Henry’s new experiences…and that will last his lifetime. I shouldn’t be concerned that I felt that way for his first competitive game as goalie…only concerned if I don’t change my thought process. Because like any good rookie, I must learn from mistakes, or risk being put on the bench by a son who thinks his father is to blame.