Saturday, September 13, 2008

From Helen to Captain Marvel - and back again

Three years ago, my son E, then nine, said he wanted to play soccer.

I was excited. After all, E has a lot - a LOT - of energy, and can be a difficult child. Some great passion, I knew, would be great for him, something he could really excel in, give him something to focus on. It would also give him and me something to do together, so we could grow closer. It seemed like it would be a great father/son adventure.

After having so many children, it is rare to feel a lot of shock over things anymore; but E's first game shocked me. And mortified me. He was entirely unable to form any conception of direction or orientation. His coach sent him in to play defence; he began running all over the field, sometimes off the field, trying to score on his own goalkeeper as often as on the other goalkeeper...and all the while, his Chinese-Canadian coach was shouting, "E! Wha' you doo-ing?! E!! You go wrong way!!! NO E - COME BACK - NO, THAS OTHER FIELD!!! You pray DE-fence, E! Go back to your own goal!".

But E couldn't remember which one was his goal. He couldn't remember which direction to go. He couldn't figure out who was attacking and who was defending. It was like watching Helen Keller. It was, without question, the weirdest, most horrific athletic performance I'd ever witnessed in my entire life.

E didn't play much that first game. His coach kept him mostly on the sideline, and when he had a chance, tried to explain to him what was going on. But E, standing there in his gold and blue uniform, only stared blankly, confusedly, out at the chaos of players.

"E", I said when I got home. "We need to go over some stuff". I drew a picture of a soccer pitch on a piece of paper.

"Your team is the X's, the other guys, the O's. Your goalie is here. Which goalie should you score on?"

"That one", he said, pointing to the O goalie. Thank God, I thought. "And that one", he said, next pointing to the X goalie.

"No - you don't score on your own goalie, dude. You only try to score points on the other team". I was trying to keep things calm and light.

"That's weird", E said, in his quick, rapid-fire delivery. "I-think-if-there's-a-goalie-then-you-should-be-able-to-score-on-him-it-would-make-the-game-way-more-exciting-and-"

"E - stop. Stop. Let's just go through the game, step by step. K?"


And so we did - over, and over, and over, and over. And over. I ended up buying one of those soccer coach whiteboards so we could go over what had happened after every game. And slowly but surely, things started to click in E's head. And he began to practice more and more.

And then all last year, he really, really focused and practiced; and by the end of the year, he had locked down the center-midfielder position, and was setting up plays, regularly scoring goals, calling for the ball, beating guys one on one, taking free kicks, covering the whole center portion of the pitch with a really good sense of the whole game, brimming with confidence and determination, directing the defenders, directing the forwards - a HUGE leap, especially given how shy he has always been. E had finally come into his own.

The club director couldn't believe it. His coaches couldn't believe it. The other parents couldn't believe it. Every game, people would come up to me and say, "I can't believe how much E has improved!". And he finished the season with highlight reel stuff: in the last game, E scored two goals, and set up the third.

"I've told the club director I definitely want E for my gold team next year", said Cecil, the gold team coach, in his east London accent (the league places kids in bronze, silver, and gold according to skill level). "He's brilliant. He reminds me of Bryan Robson (the Manchester United star from a few years ago). They used to call him 'Captain Marvel' because of the way he ran up and down the pitch and controlled everything. We definitely need him".

From Helen Keller to the Gold team's Captain Marvel in three years - wow. That was an achievement! Especially for a kid who still couldn't pour milk into his cereal bowl without spilling it everywhere.

"You did it!", I said to E exultantly after my chat with Cecil. "Can you believe it? You're a lock for the Gold team!". I called up the older brothers and told them to make sure to congratulate E. We talked about it at the table. I even got my brother to call him and congratulate him. E seemed like he was on a high, and the whole family rallied to cheer his achievement.

And then summer started, and E said he wanted to take a break from practicing. Okay, I thought. I can understand that.

The end of June came - but E still didn't want to practice. And all throughout July, he didn't want to play. And he began to say, "I don't think I want to be a soccer player when I grow up". Weird - he's spent the last three years saying that's all he wants to be, and now all of a sudden, right after his break-out year, he changes his mind? "You don't have to be a pro soccer player when you grow up, E. But it's still fun to play, and you might as well do your best. Maybe you'll change your mind again".

But August came, and E still didn't even want to pick up a soccer ball. Formal Gold Team assessments arrived in mid-August. E went, and was horrible. It was as though he'd lost his game sense in the space of ten weeks, and most of his personal skills. Scrimmage after scrimmage, E was non-existent to a liability. He was Helen Keller again.

Finally, after five scrimmages, the club director pulled me aside and said, "What happened with E? He was a shoe-in for Gold, and now he can't play anymore".

"Uh - well - he seemed to lose interest over the summer. I don't really know what to say; he is kind of a strange kid; all I know is he just seemed to totally go off soccer once summer hit".

Long story short is, E has been passed over for the Gold team, and he seems very certain he no longer wants to play soccer. Now I've got coaches, parents, emailing me, saying "what happened? Please try to convince him to play. He turned into one of the best players in the club!".

But how can I force a kid to play a sport he, for whatever reason, has absolutely zero interest in anymore? Even though it kills me - after all, I put in hundreds of hours with him, taking him to the park myself to run drills, watching and dissecting televised Premier Leagues games with him, driving him back and forth to soccer academies, buying him soccer books, drawing up plays, picking out soccer shoes, teaching him to kick, the whole thang...

I guess I will have to cherish in memory those moments for their own sake, rather than as the exciting steps to something more.


Anonymous said...

I keep having to log in as anonymous because I can't get my google password to work and I'm trying to re-register...ANYWAY..

I just had to tell you that I've read this post like 6 times. This is my kid. I've totally been through this..Your last sentence killed me because it should be really easy to do as a parent to just revel in the moment and let them be who they are...but it can be a hard process for a parent.

~Jen~ said... endearing...I like how you freely refer to E as a strange kid...but are in no way insulting to him. Good job dad.

hahah @ helen keller

ImjustagirlIwhoisinthewayofherself said...

This is such a heartwarming account of real life parenting at it's best.

All that time you put in, you really seem like an incredible human and father. So many of your posts inspire me to strive to be a better Mother. I thank you for that, for taking the time to share. (It's a struggle to be a single Mom, you have to be both parents.)

Your choice to cherish the moment with E was right on.

Not doing so can be a real problem sometimes. You can be looking so far into an unknowable future, that you manage somehow to screw up today.