Monday, March 24, 2014
Monarch butterflies are the original “snowbirds” flying south to Mexico or Southern California every October to lay their eggs in the same trees every year, then returning to their northern summer homes in the spring to live, feed, and enchant us. They love drifting through the verdant open spaces of our kids’ soccer fields, so practices and games are often populated with flurries of monarchs adding a splash of brilliant color to the scene. For very young players, the butterflies can prove to be a major distraction encouraging children to observe them at a minimum and chase them down at a maximum. The usual chaos on the field becomes heightened as players twirl and frolic with their new winged teammates. Staying focused in a game can prove to be nearly impossible.
Distracted players are frustrating for coaches and usually even more frustrating for parents who hope to will their sons and daughters to greatness through the power of their desire. Watching John or Jane chasing butterflies instead of the ball leaves adults in despair. I can definitely sympathize. Robbie was well-known for his inability to remain focused on the game. He loved to watch the clouds overhead, try to find four-leaf clovers, and chase butterflies in his Under-6 to Under-8 years. If the ball came to him, he politely passed it off the nearest player without regard to uniform color – we even got asked if he was color-blind. He loved participating. He gleefully put on his gear twice a week, ran onto the field for practice or games, jumped around with his friends, and stayed happy throughout the game no matter the outcome. However, he could not stay focused on the rules and strategies of the game. He loved his outdoor time for his own purposes. He played with a carefree abandon that spoke to joy and innocence.
So imagine our surprise when he moved from a recreation club to a select club and the coach approached us with the news that he was a special player. We had moved to the club because Bryce had been asked to join the U-11 team there, and so we decided to bring Robbie over to simplify transportation to practices easier with both at the same club. We had no expectation that Robbie was ever going to be a soccer player. Yet somehow, in the space of a short winter break, he developed a keen interest in assertively playing the game. We didn’t notice it because we were not expecting it. Within a few months Robbie moved from major daisy picker to a focused and, I would argue, far too aggressive player. The joy he had brought to his practices in the earliest years continued but was overshadowed with intensity. I have no idea what caused the change; if I did I would market it to all the soccer parents who want their children to excel so I could retire with a million dollars. His brother had always been intense, so maybe he just started trying to emulate his older sibling. Or maybe the structure and pressures of a select club as opposed to a recreation club initiated a change. Maybe maturity in his brain did it. Whatever it was, the age of innocence came to an abrupt end.
We parents recognize that our kids will always be a reflection of us – translating their success into a measure of our own success. So it’s natural to want our kids to be like those YouTube phenoms from Brazil, Germany, even the U.S. who dribble wildly and aggressively down the field against much older players and score. We hear about kids signed by major professional clubs at young ages, so why not our prodigy. There is a youth football coach called the QB Guru, Steve Clarkson, who regularly gets kids in their early teens committed to colleges before they even enter high school. His professional graduates have earned, according to Forbes’ magazine, over $300 million in contracts with the NFL. Joe Montana sent his own sons to the camp. So why wouldn’t parents fall over themselves to get their child coached by this successful man? With a monetary prize out there for the driven player, there’s no surprise that parents are not only willing, but wishing, to have the innocent, playing just for fun days finish quickly and the focused, high expectation days begin.
I’m very proud that my sons played in high school and college and that Bryce has even signed with a professional indoor team. But I also worry that both boys have paid with serious social, psychological, and competitive costs to achieve these goals. They both experienced several months in their soccer playing years of sitting on the bench and even more time (for Bryce it was two years) of little to no playing time. The frustrations of not being able to contribute can lead to depression, self-doubt, loss of initiative, and anger. With increasing pressures many of the boys’ excellent soccer-playing friends quit the game, looking to find an easier, more enjoyable way of getting through high school and college without the stress of performing at a peak level constantly. Robbie left his college team when the coach became verbally abusive, using racially loaded language on the field and in the locker room. He returned when the coach was fired for his behavior, but not immediately. He hesitated because he wanted to be sure that he would experience pleasure to counteract the pressure. His friendships and his natural passion and drive for the game tipped the scale. No one achieves at the highest levels without serious sacrifices which may include free time, happiness, grades, friendships, love, family time, participation in normal childhood activities, putting up with surly coaches, dealing with nasty opponents (both verbally and physically), and major responsibility early in life. We hear the stories of Olympic and professional athletes who hit the ice at 3 a.m. or leave home to live and train with a coach as pre-teens with no guarantee of success and the threat of injury always present. We experienced our own version of this story when Robbie played with the Chicago Magic. I picked him up at school at 2:48 p.m., driving three hours through rush hour traffic to get him to practice by 6:00 p.m., two hours of practice, and then a two hour drive home getting in between 10 and 10:30 p.m. He did his homework in the car on the way home and used the phone to stay connected with his friends. I did that three or four days a week with the weekends devoted to games all over the Midwest. It continued that way for four years. I persevered because Robbie loved playing at a top level and being an important part of a team that regularly went to national tournaments, but he also gave up most of a “normal” high school life. It split our family into the Milwaukee half and the Chicago half. I would see Bryce when he woke up and when he went to bed, which was tough on both of us.
We parents need to be really sure that moving to a selective and intensive team properly serves our children. Every year in the weeks before tryouts, we reevaluated their team decisions with the boys. Our rule was that once they made the commitment, they had to honor it for the year, so they needed to be very sure that they wanted this more than other things they would be missing out on. We talked about missing football games with their friends, missing after school activities, missing going with friends just to hang out at a burger joint or the mall, missing some major landmarks in high school such as prom (we tried to avoid that as much as possible, but it had to be factored into the decision), and dealing with the pressures of their team including the chance that they would be benched in favor of a player with more skills, aggression, and/or experience. Even with weeks of consideration and planning, there were still days during the year of just wanting to give up. On the plus side, their teams often played in the same tournaments, and if not Bryce would guest play with Chicago Magic, so we were able to enjoy those events as a family. Nevertheless we paid a price as a family unit and the boys paid a price on their own.
I have no idea if later in life the boys will regret taking the pathway they did, but, of course, hindsight allows for an unclouded perfect assessment. We have constantly reinforced the idea that you can only do so many things in the time you have, so you need to be content with your choices. Still, I occasionally get wistful for another history where their sacrifices disapper. I think that Robbie had the right idea all those years ago when he just enjoyed being out in nature, watching the clouds, looking for clover, and chasing butterflies. Such a carefree existence can’t last forever, but it would be wonderful if it lasted as long as possible. What a fantastic foundation for happiness.