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When I last counted, my wife Suzie and I had three daughters. I'm too tired to be absolutely sure, and I don't always see them or my wife. I just see the backs of their heads as they drive by. We communicate mainly by waving to each other as we constantly drive the girls and their friends back and forth to assorted lessons, practices, games, and programs. Raising three children in the 1990's is a wearing task for any household. Somehow, sending the kids out of the house "to play" is simply not allowed in our time-pressed suburban culture. As children, our baby boom generation leisurely roamed the streets and town parks, having what we thought of as fun - playing tag, ring-o-leaveo, hide and go seek, red light \ green light, and war. (Well, maybe playing "war" was not such a hot idea but no one ever got permanently killed in our games.) Our simple games were usually carefree and unstructured. One of my wife's favorite games was "boomer cars." The rules were simple. Each child would tuck their arms under their jackets so the sleeves were empty. Once everyone was armless, all the kids would spin around until they were dizzy and started clunking and bumping into each other. The last kid still standing was declared the winner. Anyone who threw up was disqualified.
While we were out "playing," our Dads were either at work or puttering in the garage tool room and our Moms were home making dinner or cleaning the house. We were totally unsupervised. We were free to play. No matter how exciting a time we had, or how active we were, or even if we actually met an alien from Mars, it was just between us kids. Sometimes if we got too rowdy, one of the elderly residents in the neighborhood would scold us or call us "undisciplined rapscallions." When we finally got home, each of our parents would ask us, "Where did you go?" and we would say "Out." They'd ask "What did you do?" and we'd simply reply, "Nuttin." Mom would then simply say, "O.K., wash up for dinner." God bless typical 1950's style family communications.
Times sure have changed. Although most of us kids have survived to become adults in spite of our lack of supervised play, we now also realize that many of us had no concept of safety or the risks we took. I guess many of us formerly "unsupervised rapscallions" are now concerned parents who don't want our own children to get into as much trouble as we did. Besides, with the pressures of two working parents (or single parents) trying to earn enough to raise a family, we need to spend what little time we have with our kids as "quality time." So why did organized sports ever take control of our lives??? In particular - girls soccer. I never saw any instructions written in the "Rulebook for Perfect Daddyhood" stating I had to enter my daughter in a girl's soccer league.
Not so long ago, there were few organized activities for kids. Boy and girl scouts, 4-H clubs, church youth groups, and little league baseball. Today, everything under the sun is offered and each activity is meticulously scheduled, planned, and orchestrated to build "self esteem and valuable skills." Church and scouting organizations have fierce competition from organized leagues of baseball, softball, lacrosse, football, volleyball, karate, tennis, gymnastics, swimming, ice hockey, field hockey, street hockey, and the biggest, most intense, time consuming and bane of every church pastor - "GIRLS SOCCER!!"
Girls soccer leagues have completely taken over our community. Our suburban town has a total population of about 20,000. Our public school system has an outstanding reputation for its sports programs and has had several County and State Champion soccer teams. The school system provides intramural as well as varsity opportunities for the students, and many students win soccer scholarships to a variety of colleges. Our Village Recreation Department, however, is determined not to be a second class competitor in the sports world. Over the last decade, at least six different soccer leagues have been started for girls in the town. Each spring and fall, girls soccer season turns our entire village into a competitive free-for-all, and the body count continues to climb.
There are several levels of girls soccer leagues in our village, from the beginning Novice League, to the Tournament League, to the Traveling League, to even the Superstar League. One father was so upset his daughter wasn't selected for the Superstar League that he even created another league - the Superduperstars of the Future Traveling League. I guess he was rewriting his "Rulebook for Perfect Daddyhood" with an extra section on creative ways to gain soccer scholarships. Even though the facts prove that there are less than 600 girls between 5 and 15 in the village, there are at least 120 teams of 12 girls in the leagues. Serious scholarship questing Moms and Dads sometimes have their daughters play in 2 or 3 leagues at once so the kids have a better chance at being a "champion" on at least one of the teams.
When my daughter Erin was in second grade, she realized her body wasn't built to be a gymnast like her older sister, Alexis. Erin was taller and bigger boned than most seven year olds and didn't have the petite stature or flexibility needed to turn her body into a pretzel on a balance beam. She was strong and a fast runner, though, and when she heard some of her friends were joining a soccer team, she asked Mommy and me if she could too. "Sure," I naively replied, and I brought her down to the Recreation Department to sign her up.
What an experience! There were 600 second grade girls, their moms, and their dads - all of them screaming, jostling, pushing, and fighting to sign up for the Fall Trophy Fest Girls Soccer season. As I filled out the application, I noticed an option of fees - "basic registration fee, insurance fee, field use fee, uniform fee, referee's fee, ball fee, and a "participation" fee. The participation fee, $35, was a sneaky way of getting Dads to sign up to be coaches or assistant coaches. The fee would be waived if you "volunteered" to coach. Since I didn't know anything about soccer except that this was the sport where the ball has spots, I paid the additional fee along with the myriad other fees and looked forward to having someone else teach Erin the rules of the sport. One other fee had me puzzled - the "trophy fee." I asked what this fee was for, and found out each and every girl gets a trophy at the end of the season. Even second string players on last place teams get a trophy? Of course -- it helps build the girls' self esteem. It also builds a healthy bank account for the local Village Recreation Department Official Soccer League Outlet Store that happens to sell trophies.
I then asked the League Director if Erin would be on the same team as her girlfriends. Instead of a simple yes or no response, I got a half hour lecture about how all of the new candidates are pooled according to their ability and a lottery system is used to carefully and fairly select teams of equal talent caliber. "Wait a minute," I replied, "Erin's only 7, she hasn't played soccer before. We registered so she can begin to learn how to play."
The Director sneered at me. "You mean she's never played on a soccer league before? Some of these girls have already been competing for five years." Five years experience by the age of 7? This was the first of many lessons I learned that season. There is an incredible amount of behind the scenes politicking and competition to get the "Big Tournament Trophy" at the end of the season. The purpose of a few of the coaches wasn't really to teach the girls the skills of the game, or to teach them how to work as a "team player." These coaches had only one goal - to ensure that their own daughter was the star of the first place team and to see that their daughter got a full scholarship to an Ivy League school by playing soccer.
As luck would have it, Erin did get assigned to the same team, the "Village Donut Stallions," as her friend. We showed up at the first practice and met her teammates. Coach Bruno introduced himself and his daughter -Brunhilda, to the team. "Hi girls," he said, "are you ready to win? The team rules are simple: stop anyone from the other team who comes toward you with the ball, kick the ball to Brunhilda, and keep out of her way. Also, each team member has to eat 3 dozen donuts every week. Any questions?" I could tell it was going to be an interesting season.
The girls practiced for two hours, and by the end of the session, I could tell which girls knew what they were doing and which girls didn't have a clue. Two girls had problems understanding why they weren't allowed to stop the ball with their hands. One girl kept forgetting to run up the field when she got the ball. One clueless girl couldn't even figure out which direction she was supposed to kick the ball. Brunhilda's only problem was that she kept screaming "Give me the ball!, Give me the ball!!" and elbowing her teammates whenever they got near her. Erin did OK for her first practice, and enthusiastically ran up and down the field. Whether she had the ball or not didn't seem to matter to her.
Erin was assigned as Center Halfback, Brunhilda was Center Forward, the two girls who kept using their hands were made goalies, and "Clueless" was designated Left Forward Reserve which meant she wouldn't be allowed on the field unless the Stallions were ahead 10 to 1. The rest of the girls grumbled about their assigned positions. It seemed every girl wanted to be a forward so they could score the winning goal. It also turned out that the girls were embarrassed to tell their dads they were "only" good enough to be a fullback. Coach Bruno was firm, and told the girls that every one of them should practice during the week because the first game was the next Sunday at 11AM. First game??? Some of these girls couldn't even figure out which limb to put their shin guards on yet, and they already had a game coming up. I cringed a little when I realized the game was scheduled in conflict with our church service. I figured I'd better say an extra prayer on Saturday evening.
The week sped by, with Erin and me out in the backyard every evening trying to learn how to kick, stop, and pass a soccer ball. I was still wondering why a full game had been scheduled so early in the season, when so many of the girls still didn't even understand the game. I was also wondering why I was spending 20 hours of my limited time teaching Erin soccer when I didn't even know how to play the game. Where was Mommy during these practices? She was driving Alexis to gymnastics, and our youngest daughter, K. C., to dance lessons. Then we also had church choir, art lessons, and swimming lessons. Our car never left town, but we still traveled over 25,000 miles each year. We spent more time dropping off and picking up the kids than we did sleeping. We even had to start packing our own box lunches so we could eat in the car as we drove back and forth. Suzie and I began to write little napkin notes to each other and stick then on each other's lunch box. One of Suzie's notes said "Hello there, I am designated driver #1. Please remember to get gas for the day shift driver. XOX" God bless typical 1990's family communications.
On Sunday morning, I felt guilty about not going to church, but proceeded to drive Erin to her first soccer game. I purposely avoided driving by the church since I didn't want anyone to notice we'd were ducking out on God's time. The Village had seven different soccer fields set up to hold the games. It took Erin and me twenty minutes to find which field her team was going to play on. I was shocked to see that there were over 12,000 people in the stands. Wow, I thought, I guess there's plenty of seats at church this morning. Our trusty Village Recreation Department also was making a fortune selling coffee, donuts, and souvenir pennants to the spectators.
Erin's game was a riot. Literally. Within five minutes of the kickoff, not one girl remembered to stay in their assigned position. A tremendous knot of 20 seven year old bodies rolled back and forth across the field with the ball, oblivious to boundaries, end lines, or the goals. Every once in awhile, the ball would pop free of the body mass and then Brunhilda would scream, "Give me the ball! Give me the ball!" There was fighting, kicking, and screaming from the stands too as each and every parent saw their dreams of a full college soccer scholarship fading away. The thirteen year old Official Village Recreation Department Soccer League Referees blew whistles, threw flags, stamped their feet, and finally just stood in bewilderment as the game went on. The game reminded me of the 'boomer cars' game my wife used to play. I was getting dizzy just watching. I heard the man next to me saying the Lord's prayer, and turned to ask him if he thought a 'Hail Mary' might be appropriate. Wait a minute! It was the pastor of my church! "Reverend Jim!", I exclaimed, "What are you doing here??? Who's giving the sermon today??"
He looked at me a bit sheepishly and replied, "Actually, no-one. It seems everyone in the congregation has at least one daughter on one of the soccer teams, so no one ever shows up at church during soccer season. I got tired of preaching to an empty church and decided to join the rest of you." I noticed Reverend Jim didn't mention that his own daughter, a second grader, was also in the Girl's Soccer League....