Jay’s first soccer game was on Saturday morning. Despite how important his first practice had ended up feeling, I did not anticipate the game would be a big event. I figured that with a bunch of three and four-year-olds running around on a field, it would be barely distinguishable from a morning at the playground.
As soon as we arrived at the field, though, things got more intense. Jay became tenaciously clingy—way more so than he’d been at his first practice. I should have realized then that while to me the experience started off as just another pleasant sunny morning by a field, to him it felt very different.
The game started with Jay sitting in my lap on the sideline. I felt pretty angry and disappointed in him. I could not believe he would not get out there and play. But I also realized that with other parents watching there was a limit to how hard I could push him and, plus, it’s not really possible to force a kid to play soccer. So, he and I just sat on the sideline. Every now and again, in a voice straining to sound indifferent, I told him he could join his team whenever he was ready.
Five or so minutes in, the coach got him into the game by letting him take a free kick. He kicked the ball, stood for a second with a sad expression on his face, and then he was off. In less than two minutes he scored two length of the field goals, including the second one with a deft cutback ten feet from the goal when he realized he was offline. He was also good on defense. He ran back ahead of the ball and chose good lines for heading off the other team. I was completely and utterly flabbergasted—by his success and by how completely exhilarating it was to watch. Like one of the best feelings I’ve ever had in my life-level exhilarating. Ten minutes into the game, I’d changed from thinking of organized sports as a drag on our family time to wanting to sign Jay up for every travel team in the state.
Then the other team had a breakaway. Jay raced back to the goal and was there to meet the kid. The attacker was less than three feet tall, blond, three-years-old, and unshakeable on the ball. He cut back on Jay and scored.
If you’d frozen the scene just as the ball was hitting the back of the net and asked me to predict what came next, I could have guessed all day and not come close to imagining the expression that did in fact break out on Jay’s face. I looked up, and he was literally sobbing, his mouth open as wide as it goes, his eyes closed, tears streaming down his face.
By this time I was completely befuddled. I hadn’t expected Jay to cling like he had, I hadn’t expected him to be as good as he was once he started playing, and I definitely hadn’t anticipated he’d take it so hard when someone scored on him. And I was just as surprised by my own responses to Jay: anger when he wouldn’t play, complete exultation when he scored, total mystification when he cried.
And this was just from a single morning of four-year-old soccer. How is Jay going to react when he starts getting grades, making and losing friends, falling in love and getting his heart broken, winning and losing competitions with real stakes? And how will I feel watching this all? After Saturday morning, I feel significantly less confident of my ability to predict any of those things.