Thoughts on Kids’ Soccer, Competition, and Sports

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It was a really hot Saturday noon with the sun almost directly overhead. I held a big umbrella to provide shade to 2 members of our son’s soccer team sitting on the bench. First game of the Nashville Youth Soccer Association (NYSA) Fall season and the kids had 3 minutes left in the game.

Those two kids didn’t want to play. J, the son of my son’s coach, cried when the opposing team took the ball from him. It just went downhill from there. The other kid, U, refused to play after the first quarter. It is their first season playing kids’ soccer.

Our son did a little better on his first season, too. He played in the Spring 2017 season of the NYSA from February to May. He loved practice time but during the actual games, he just wanted to sit on the bench and cheer his teammates on.

If he ever played, he would kick the ball once then stand around watching everyone else play. But on the last quarter of the last game of the season, he blocked the other team’s attempt to score a goal, then dribbled the ball across the field, and then scored! I was so proud! We waited a whole season for that winning moment!

He belongs to the U5 (Under 5) league now. Even if he had a season under his belt, it still took some convincing for him to go and play in the game last Saturday. Meanwhile, J and U just sat on the bench or went to their moms for some comfort. Game time could be really stressful on kids.

While waiting for the game to wrap up, I noticed an old lady walked up from my left to talk to U. She pulled him aside and then said to him “Mema drove all the way here to watch you play. If you’re not gonna play, then Mema is not gonna come back to watch you.” I don’t know if she was aware that I could hear her. But I definitely did.

Then I watched my son score a goal!! It was awesome! We don’t need to wait until the last game of the season for him to enjoy the game and score a goal!

After another possession, the referee blew the whistle. Game over.

I gave some high fives to some of the kids in my son’s team. And I went to J and asked him to “give me five”. I guess he was still upset and ignored me. After a minute or two, I heard a slap. His mother came over and slapped his thigh and said “Don’t be rude when someone talks to you!”

She grabbed U’s left arm and led him away while talking about how they might not come back for the soccer game next week. I just looked at them thinking it will be a long drive home for that boy.

Every parent stood up and went to the middle of the court for tunnel time. Our son loves it. As we packed our umbrella and camping chairs, I couldn’t help but feel bad for his teammate U.

It got me thinking about our son’s first season of soccer, the pressure he was under, and how we responded to his refusal to play.

Doing something new is scary, especially for kids.

Our son is an only child for now and he started Pre-school in Fall 2016. He enjoyed it. Then when Spring 2017 came, he started playing soccer. Practice games were great! He would have fun with teammates in a smaller, intimate setting. No pressure. Just play.

For most adults, doing something new can be exciting and scary at the same time. How much more would it be for kids?

It’s one thing to kick a ball with dad or with other kids in the neighborhood. It’s an entirely different thing to kick a ball with strangers.

Competitive sports is noisy and rowdy and stressful!

On Coco’s first soccer game ever, he kicked the ball once or twice. But after a few minutes, the cheering and shouting of the parents, the instructions of the coach, and the whistle combined stressed him out. To him, it must have been a scary cacophony. He looked at my wife and I. He would cried if we looked back at him and beckoned him to come. But he just stood there, probably wishing he was somewhere else. It took the mood out of him.

Sports and competition can go against ‘kindergarten rules’ we teach them.

We always teach our son to be polite and nice to other kids. We had rules for him when he is in the library, at the playground, or in a friend’s house.

  • Don’t take someone else’s toy.
  • Take turns playing a toy that everybody wants.
  • Be nice to other kids.

Competitive team sports break all these rules! With soccer, the objective is to prevent the other team from scoring, take the ball away from them, and put it in your team’s goal.

It goes against all the nice rules we’ve been teaching our kids. No wonder they are stressed when they start playing sports.

How do we help kids deal with the stress of competitive sports?

I know that sports is a good way for kids to develop social skills, sportsmanship, and a way to channel aggressive behavior. But at the same time, I now have a better understanding of why our son behaved the way he did last season. You could almost argue that sports is one of the ways that they get to experience the realities of life–its ups and downs, winning and losing, and all the emotional responses that go along with it.

Here are some thoughts and reflections on how we can help kids deal with the stress of competitive sports.

Let kids have fun and ease into the game.

We tried several ways to encourage our son to play soccer in the Spring 2017 season. We offered to buy him a toy. We threatened to stop going to practices and games if he didn’t play. Why go to the practices and games if he wasn’t going to play anyway? We were in uncomfortable situations several times because he would just not play!

Looking back, we may have been under pressure ourselves. Several kids in other teams just seemed to be naturals at soccer. One particular player in his team last season was really good, too.

When we’ve exhausted all tactics in our arsenal, we just threw our hands up in the air and came up with one rule. Just one rule. We talked to him and said “Just have fun.” We also told him that we’ll finish this season because he said yes when we asked him if he wanted to sign up. We wanted him to learn the value of commitment and finishing what he started.

Finally, we promised him that if he finished the season and he still wanted to sign up for the next season, he can do so. Or if did not want to touch another soccer ball ever again, it was also okay.

That lifted the pressure off our shoulders. And I believe on his, too.

Be patient with our kids.

We’ve been patient with our kids since they were babies, right? Why change now? Sometimes, we make the mistake that they are fully rational beings, this little kids in our lives. But they are not! They’re still learning new things everyday. Heck, there are things that I’m still learning about and feel uncomfortable doing. But that’s just how the world works.

It’s a journey, for sure, but when we decided to be patient with him and just let him have fun and follow his coach’s direction, he was less stressed. We were, too. I know this isn’t the first time that we will learn with him. But I’m glad we learned our lesson in his first soccer season.

Challenge them in a healthy, encouraging way. Gamify.

Sports can be noisy, rowdy, and stressful, but it’s also important to challenge kids physically and help them train. Sports can help kids so much in developing their body, mind, and emotions. So it’s important to challenge them. And we need to do it in a healthy way.

Who would want to take a photo if you have a medal and ice pop?!

I know that using carrots and sticks can be tricky. But gamifying it can be exciting. An occasional reward would be great! Or helping them work towards a goal could help them develop patience and perseverance.

Whenever our son finds something difficult and he fails to do it the first, we tell him “try harder and do it again.” That definitely helped him with some house chores and helped him be patient with more difficult tasks.

Help them find a way to enjoy the game.

One particular book helped our son enjoy the game–the Star Soccer Team. It’s about animals who played soccer with a new teammate Zebra. Out of all the soccer team members, though, Coco loved Elephant the most. He is the goalkeeper and that’s who he wanted to be.

So one day, close to the end of the spring 2017 season, we told him that he could be the Elephant and block the other team’s goal. It worked. And that’s how he got to block a goal, dribble it across the field and scored one!

 

It can be tough seeing our kids cry and refuse to play. But it would do us well to remember that they are dealing with so much that they may not have the energy to play. We can use sports to help them develop physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially. But we should also remember that they are still kids and that they are fragile.

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