The coach put him at left fullback, out of the way. He trotted onto the field, his shorts too high, his jersey tucked in. And when the whistle blew, he ran in a slow circle, staring at the ground, “maintaining his position” as the game raged on the other side of the field. When the ball finally came to him, he stood over it, unsure what to do.
On the sidelines, anxiety gathered in my jaw. The coach yelled at him to pass. Parents whispered, “What the hell is he doing?” Teammates screamed. Finally, his arms flailed for balance, his tongue jutted out and his mighty kick harvested a divot the size of knee sock. The ball never moved.
The 1999 American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) season had begun. It would be yet another fall of polite derision, hidden giggles and whispered contempt. I had hoped my boy would decide not to play. But when I asked him if he wanted to sign up again, he looked up from his microscope, smiled broadly and said, “Yeah!”
I didn’t get it. He never practiced. None of his friends played. When I offered to kick with him, he shrugged and said he’d rather play his clarinet or read Harry Potter. And yet, when the season began again, he churned enthusiastically onto the field while I paced the sidelines, hoping this would be the year he’d find his inner Olympian.
But year after year, it was the same. While his teammates whizzed around the field, my son occupied its loneliest corner, singing to himself, identifying birds flying overhead, occasionally asking the official how much time was left.
The hard part for me wasn’t his lack of ability and interest, it was watching him march onto the field, sure that he’d suffer multiple humiliations. I knew that William would give him grief about his shorts being too high. Or Cooper would tell him he was slow. And when the mighty Kyle scored a goal, my son would run over to the scrum of celebrating players, his hand held out for skin, and he would be ignored.
Being an OHP (Original Helicopter Parent), I tortured myself with questions after each humiliating game: What complex web of feeling was motivating my dear middle son to suffer these annual abuses? Was he self-punishing? Was he trying to please me? Or make up for a blossoming sense of inadequacy? Had I given him the subconscious message that athletic achievement was absolutely essential?
I assumed these games would have deep and lasting negative impact on his life. Certainly, trouble in school and anti-social behavior would follow his AYSO career. Subsequent psychiatric care would lose the battle to drug abuse. Prison time and death by lethal injection would then end his brief life. And all because of AYSO.
But as it turned out, the AYSO humiliations I thought were ruining my son’s life were only ruining mine. He’s 23 years old now and just finished a career as an NCAA D1 athlete. His soccer stylings ended in 8th grade when, entirely by chance, he heard about the Marina Aquatic Center Rowing Club in Marina Del Ray. He joined. And, then, entirely by chance, he grew to be six feet, six inches tall — a genetic anomaly in my otherwise mid-size family and a perfect body for rowing.
He went on to set club rowing records that still stand today. In the 2009 Junior Nationals, he placed 3rd in the single skull. He was recruited by every major collegiate rowing program in the country. Chance showed up, wrested my son’s life trajectory from my OHP hands, and took it to the water.
I finally asked my son why he kept signing up for AYSO all those years. I expected an emotional answer charged with self-esteem/burden-of-expectation-issues. Turns out it wasn’t that complicated.
“Duh,” he said. “The trophies.”