Soccer, Rainbow Dash, and Life Lessons
As Sarah begins to get older and understand embarrassment, I’ve been reluctant to share much about her struggles out of respect for her privacy. But I have a good story to tell about her, one that she can hopefully look back on one day and be proud of.
Without going into too much detail, Sarah often struggles socially and has a hard time dealing with loud noises, changes, frustrations and has a few unhealthy coping mechanisms. It’s prevalent enough that we have sought out help and advice on the best ways to handle it.
For years she has begged me to do soccer and dance. But for the past three years I’ve been so overwhelmed with pregnancy and babies that just getting everyone fed and in bed felt like the best I could do on most days. We have let her do choir through the school, which is wonderful, but the more we dug into what she’s dealing with, the more we realized she needs some sort of regular, structured, physical activity.
Our school put together a kindergarten soccer team. And when sign up time came, as usual, I was slow to react and we missed the boat. But then, by chance, a child ended up not being able to play and a spot opened up on the team. One of the coaches called me and asked if Sarah wanted to participate. My immediate gut reaction was yes, but Mark and I were nervous about practice time and making sure we could commit to all the games. I looked at the schedule though, and decided we could make it work.
Her first practice went really well. The coach, a dad of one of the players, was overflowing with compliments about how well Sarah did on her first day. And she came running to the car, grinning from ear to ear, telling me how much fun she had. She talked about soccer the rest of the evening, only complaining once to tell me to send her a change of clothes next time so she wouldn’t have to get so hot in her uniform.
Her first game was Saturday and she was so excited. Coach let her start. But her smile quickly faded as one of the girls on the opposing team began to score goal after goal and our team couldn’t even get the ball onto their side of the field. I saw Sarah start spiraling into frustration mode. First she crossed her arms, poked out her bottom lip and refused to move. Then, after the girl scored again, she marched off the playing field and towards the fence, sat down and refused to play anymore. I hustled over to her while they put someone else in the game. I walked her back over to the sideline and made her sit with me.
Before I could say a word she said, “ I don’t want to play anymore. That girl keeps scoring.”
Me: “But Sarah…”
Sarah: “I don’t want to play!”
Me: “You don’t have to play, but you do have to listen.”
Sarah stared at me fiercely, but didn’t argue.
What followed was a pep talk that involved the ever-fast and athletic Rainbow Dash from My Little Pony. Fortunately, I’ve seen every episode from every season roughly 100 times, so I’m intimately familiar with the characters and plot lines. I told her about the episode when Rainbow Dash gets made fun of and wants to give up, but she doesn’t. We talked about the other little girl who kept scoring and how she has been playing a long time, but this was Sarah’s very first game. And, after all, if you give up the first time you get frustrated, you’ll never get any better. The only way to improve is to try.
She didn’t smile. In fact, her scowl didn’t change at all. But two minutes later she said, “I want to play.”
After a few minutes, Coach came up to her and said, “Sarah, do you want to play? You’re fast, we need you out there.”
And she, quite matter of factly, walked back onto the field. They started the game, the ball was passed to her, and then she took off running with it, quickly outpacing the other kids. And then, just like that, she scored a goal.
After that moment, her spirits immediately lifted. She wasn’t jubilant though, just determined. She threw herself into the game, playing hard. She was stopping the ball with her feet, lining up her kicks and passing and making goal attempts. I was floored by how good she was.
When the game was over, she was still scowling. “Why are you upset?” I asked her, “You scored!” She looked at me fiercely and said, “I want to keep playing.” Coach told her he was so proud of her, that she was like a fast little gazelle making her way across the field.
We left the game and I told her we could go get a treat. “Not because you made a goal,” I told her, “Although that was really amazing, but because you didn’t give up and went back in the game.” Within minutes she was telling me that the little girl who kept scoring was #8, which was also her own number, and that soon she would be as good as her.
That evening, after the game was over, Mark and I talked about it with smiles on our faces. We were so hesitant to put her in soccer because of the busyness of our lives, but after just one practice and one game, she’s already improving with a lot of her issues. At church on Sunday, she even sat in the pew in front of us with one of her friends, and for the first time ever, went to children’s liturgy without one of us. I feel like I’m watching her transform before my eyes – learning to fight through the frustrations, and socialize more.
Soccer may not be our cure all, but it’s certainly proving to be way more than I could have hoped for. It’s the perfect platform for teamwork, social interaction and learning to physically move her body and do things in a loud setting. And, because of that, I’m going to cave and buy her the “special fast shoes,” (cleats) that she really wants.
So, between my minivan and this, I guess I’m officially a soccer mom. Somebody make me a “Sarah’s Mom” shirt so we can seal this deal.