Confessions of a Soccer Dad
I stand in the corner. Near the corner flag. Far from the other parents, from our team and theirs. I stand in the corner for a bunch of reasons, all completely logical in my mind.
The other parents, from our team and theirs, are doing their kids harm. They don’t intend that harm, and they don’t know they’re doing it. But, before I get to that, I have a confession to make.
I’ve not always stood in the corner.
I’m the worst kind of Soccer parent. I played at top levels until my left knee no longer allowed it. I’ve coached. I’m an F-licensed coach, which prepares me for just about nothing, but I’ve coached. For years. And, I’ve refereed. All of that combined to convince me that I know everything there is to know about soccer.
When my oldest boy, now 17 and on his way to play Division 1 soccer in college, started in the game, I was his coach. He was, in truth, my chance to play farther, to do better, to be the real star I never quite became. Yep, I was guilty of the worst possible offence: I lived vicariously through my boy.
But before that could happen, he had to learn the Beautiful Game. Me and his mom gave him his first football—a size 2 mini ball—the day he came home for the first time from the hospital. He didn’t play with it, he drooled on it.
As he grew, that football—that we still have—went everywhere with him. As he learned to walk, he held it less and kicked it more. He kicked it outside in the garden and inside (to his mother’s terrific irritation, having nothing to do with broken glasses, a vase or two, and even an antique end table, I’m sure). I encouraged him endlessly. “Kick the ball, Jakob!”
And he did. He kicked it. Everywhere he went, his football went. Soon the mini-ball became a #3 ball, and his kicking became a bit better, more accurate, more nuanced. Still I encouraged him. Try these tricks, or those. See how many times you can juggle.
When he was 5, we signed him up to play in a YMCA program. It was, as I’ve come to call it, “Beehive Football”, where the kids swarm around the ball, all of them moving in unison. Except for the kid whose dreams are made instead of dandelions and the distractions of passing butterflies.
At 7, I made my first mistake. I didn’t know it at the time, but I followed what so many—too many—parents do and do too early. At a tender 7 years old, I signed him up for competitive football. Real matches, real scores, a proper table with actual standings. At 7.
My second mistake was not saying “No!” when I was asked to be a team coach. I should have. It put me on an “I know it all” path, forged by me being an exalted coach. Of a competitive team. Pfff on that whole recreational team bit.
That year, we won the league, surely down to my coaching brilliance.
I coached another year, and left thereafter, satisfied that I was now among the highest echelons of youth football coaches. You’re supposed to leave on top, yes?
As Jakob aged, he played for a couple other, not-me coaches. Some were great, others not. All generally committed to his success, all invested in his development. Just as I was. I am, after all, his Dad.
And as his Dad, I demanded that he get the attention his talent and potential deserved. I evaluated coaches on their recognition of that talent. To my standard. I graded coaches’ nous and football wisdom based on how much time Jakob got on the pitch, on whether he started every match. It’s what Dads do. And Moms.
When a coach didn’t start Jakob or Jakob didn’t play as much as I believed appropriate, it was not the coach to whom I vented. Nope. I wasn’t terribly sophisticated in hiding my frustration or exasperation. Instead, I’d try to nonchalantly ask, “So, you didn’t start today?” or “Not much playing time today, J—what’s that about?”
To his enormous credit, my kid kept it about him, about what he’d earned. Sometimes he’d just say, “I don’t know, Dad,” in a tone that suggested he wasn’t terribly worried about it and didn’t think I should be either. But I was.
For several years, I was. I once went so far as to confront a coach, such was my vastly superior knowledge of the game.
I believe it was from another Dad, whose kid didn’t play with mine and whose kid played for another club altogether. He sent it to me by way of tagging me on Facebook. It was a short article, as I recall, with a message that was as profound as it was transformative for me.
Of everything that you can say to a kid after a game, won or lost, where the kid played great or was awful, where the team were thrashed or ran up the score, where the refereeing was brutal or exceptional, of all the things to say to your kid, the easiest and best is simply this.
I loved watching you play.
It turns out, that’s it. Nothing more. No silly questions about playing time. No criticisms of the coach or the referee. No quips about other players, in your team or the other.
I loved watching you play.
As I adopted this approach, it liberated me. I didn’t need to keep track of passages of play that were less than perfect. I didn’t need to count mistakes. I didn’t need to critique the coaches or the referees.
By the way, allow me this observation. Coaches and referees? Yep, they’re human. Really, really human. Just like I am. And you are. And all of us humans? We’re imperfect. Embrace it. Deal with it. We don’t know as much about coaching as we think we do, us parents. Even parents like me who are “brilliant” coaches.
I loved watching you play.
I think the first time I said it, Jakob wasn’t quite sure what to do with me. But again to his credit, he did his best to hide his quizzical look and said, “thanks, Dad.”
It wasn’t long after that I moved down the touchline to the corner.
I stand in the corner, happily and for the most part alone, away from the parents. It’s not because I don’t like the parents, and neither am I antisocial.
But here’s the deal.
They’re doing exactly what too many of us do. They’re mercilessly and relentlessly critical of coaches, of referees, and worse, of players, theirs and others. Occasionally, I hear encouragement of players, but mostly it’s (sometimes harsh) criticism. It’s not helpful. And, it’s not working. If it were, we’d have a crop of perfect players who are destined for world stardom. American Peles or Messis or Ronaldos.
We criticize our coaches, and yet we don’t, to our begrudging dismay, know more than they do.
We criticize our referees, and we don’t know the Laws.
Or, we criticize our players, sapping them of their love of the beautiful game one small drip at a time.
I’m like an ex-smoker. There is no greater an anti-smoking crusader than an ex-smoker. I’m an ex-know-everything-soccer-Dad. And rather than becoming a radical anti-parents-living-vicariously-through-their-kid-while-stripping-away-their-joy-for-ours crusader, I moved to the corner.
This doesn’t make me enlightened or smart. And, I'm still decidedly imperfect at this. I don’t judge other parents—far be it from this partially rehabilitated offender to cast the first stone.
I do have opinions on this, though. (You can stop reading here, and I’ll never know you stopped. If you care about the thoughts of a random Dad, read on.)
When you watch, be a fan, not a critic. Critique no one. Instead, be a fan. A rabid one, even. A fan of your kid and of your kid’s team. Be a fan of sporting behavior, a fan of good sportsmanship. Be a fan of the world’s greatest game.
When you feel the urge to scream at the referee, remember s/he is being paid about $35-50 (up to £40), if that. No mileage, no expenses. S/he has paid for their own uniform, cards, whistle…all of it. Referees take take this pittance to be away from their families to spend the afternoon to allow your kids match to be played. If they blow a call, I promise you they’ve not done it on purpose. If you refereed, you’d make mistakes too. You do referee, don’t you? Oh. Right.
Your player is not playing for you. Your player is not your proxy. Your player is playing because at some point in his or her past, s/he fell in love with the game. Fan THAT flame. Be there not as his or her coach or critic. Be there to appreciate every drop of the great pleasure of watching him or her doing something they love. Remember that feeling you had, the smiles you wore when your player played Beehive Football? Or, when their attention was to the simple things back then, like dandelions and passing butterflies? You’d never have criticized them then, or be disappointed with their play. Resist the temptation to do it now.
Make noise. Lots and lots of encouraging, player-specific and team supporting noise. Be creative. Try creating a chant or a song. You’ll surprise the living daylights out of everyone, but imagine the atmosphere you will be part of creating. And yes, your kid will think you’re utterly mad…and secretly love your contributions to a great afternoon of footie.
Oh, and one more thing. If you find yourself surrounded by negativity, lead by example. I’ve never found much success in embarrassing another parent by calling them out. They’re likely already amped up, and most normal humans don’t respond well to criticism in such a state. Instead, YOU be the positive, encouraging influence.
And if that doesn’t work or just isn’t your thing, I’m the guy who never sits down, paces a bit, and whistles on occasion. Standing in the corner. You’re welcome to join me. Anytime.
David A Ervin