It was Tuesday afternoon and it was my turn to drive the soccer carpool. Just before we left the house, my daughter Lila asked me, “Are the results posted?” Results. I’d forgotten. They said they would post the results of her soccer club tryouts Tuesday night at 8:00pm. Even though it was only 5:30, I went to my laptop and quickly clicked on the club website. The results had indeed been posted. I scanned the list for her year, 2006, and then for her tryout number, #16. It was there. For the third year in a row, Lila had made the blue team. The blue team is the highest level for each age group in her club, followed by red, then white.

I find the dynamics of youth soccer somewhat baffling and fraught with parental anxiety. We wait with bated breath for the posting of results, amidst rumors that so-and-so is trying out for this other club or that club, then endure an additional waiting period to see who, after results are posted, will actually accept her spot on the team roster.   “Club shopping” happens every year and for any of a number of reasons – parents (typically those who themselves played the sport) are unhappy with the coach or coaching, often thinking their daughter’s potential is not being adequately mined; or the player herself wanting more play time than she got the previous season; or families wanting a club with a greater cachet. In the DC/Maryland/Virginia area there are many good clubs, several with a reputation for developing kids who are able to play college ball. So club shopping and hopping happens, even at the elementary school level, even though few parents realistically think their child has a shot at becoming a pro. They do it because, well, you just never know. This is the land of overachievers, after all.

It mimics to some degree what happens in professional sports, players being shopped and traded from this team to that team – except there, money, BIG money,, is involved. Here there is no money involved, just people’s (often fragile) egos.

I didn’t play sports growing up. It’s actually been a blessing, in the sense of not knowing the game inside out, not really knowing whether the coaching is good or bad, and not having expectations of my daughter. Sure, I can tell who I think are the better players – the ones who have more contact with the ball per game or the ones who happen to be in the right place most of the time. But overall, I’m just happy my daughter made the team and seems to love the game.

This year her coach pushed them to do more. In addition to the three mandatory practices a week, she repeatedly asked them all to participate in a supplemental, non-league program called ODP, Olympic Development Program, with which she was affiliated. To entice them, she periodically sent little notes, “A lot of the pros, like Carly Lloyd, came from ODP” and “the training you get with ODP is like no other.” It meant a fourth day of practice for the girls, plus the Saturday recreational soccer game and standard club soccer game on Sunday.

Altogether, that would be a total of six days of soccer a week. For a 10-year-old. That seemed crazy. I asked my daughter and to my relief she said she didn’t want to do ODP. Come spring, though, when the opportunity arose again to sign up, she changed her mind. The girls from her team participating in ODP in the fall had not only gotten to see each other an extra day each week, they’d traveled together to play in an ODP tournament in late winter. In short, they got to socialize more. At this age, the social aspect is a big part of the draw for the girls. When my daughter said she wanted to join for the spring, I reluctantly acquiesced. But not without angst. Six days of soccer a week offended my values of balance and not putting all of your eggs in one basket. Not to mention the timing: Friday nights in Pentagon City, from 8:15-9:45pm. So much for Friday night dinners with family and friends.

By week three my fears came to pass. I saw Lila’s enthusiasm flagging, “Do I have to go to soccer today?” To which I replied, “Yes, you do. You made a commitment.”

I’m left wondering why we feel the need to foster competition in our kids at such a young age. Particularly in one sport or activity. Six days of any one thing doesn’t leave time for much else by way of extracurricular activities, never mind homework and play. Moreover, in my humble opinion, all comers at the elementary school level should be welcome to a sport; no one should be cut or left out. What kind of message does it send to a child when she is cut from a team at age 10? That she doesn’t have the aptitude or talent for the sport? That she should give up? Or that she should wait a year and try again?

Such “judgments” are at best premature, and at worst, just plain wrong. Many of the great athletes got their starts in their respective sports much later than age 10. When I was growing up, kids were just starting to learn some sports in their early teens.

And…if only kids would wait a year and try again. In this day and age, few if any do that. There is the pride and embarrassment factor of not making the team. But more to the point, there is a sense, however misguided, that failing to make the team (or the team you want) is tantamount to missing the boat altogether – if you’re not on it, maybe you should hitch your hopes to the dance or lacrosse or swim boat instead.

At tryouts this year, I secretly fantasized that my daughter would not make the blue team again but would instead get moved down to the red team. Not only would it relieve the pressure of being on “top,” I thought, it would give her psychic space to embrace other activities. Next year the middle school will offer a plethora of other options – volleyball, archery, dance, multimedia arts, and even crew in eighth grade.   This is the time to experiment, to try new things. I want my kids to try it all, not be dominated by just one activity, no matter how good they are at it.

I know the other parents on the team, probably my husband included, would likely be horrified if they knew my thinking. Who wishes their child doesn’t make the best team? But youth soccer feels to me like a beast, a machine far more powerful than I. It calls the shots – whether and when we have dinner together as a family, take weekend trips, or go to church; whether Lila engages in other activities, can have sleepovers (the club has a no sleepover rule the night before a game!) or can make her piano recitals. I guess I’m hoping that the machine will spit her out early enough that she can still feast – richly – from the smorgasboard of life.

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