Hi, I’m Matt Tillotson, and this is Matt’s Mix Tape: essays + links on living a vibrant and creative middle life.
This week: A single essay, on lessons learned and confrontations had in youth sports.
To everyone in the US, Happy Thanksgiving. If you’re elsewhere, enjoy the weekend!
The three lessons they never tell parents about youth sports
Everything hung on the next kick.
The game. The season. But even more than that ...
This might be the last game this group of friends would ever play together.
My daughter Avery approaches, standing alone for the penalty kick. She runs. Plants her left foot. The ball rockets off her right foot …
This past Saturday—a rare cool, windy, and cloudy Florida afternoon—three lessons about youth sports tumbled through our lives within a couple of hours.
Lessons parents have to learn. The hard way.
Lesson #1: Sometimes your soul will split in half and you can do nothing about it
Back to the penalty kick.
The playoff game ended 0-0 in regulation, so we went to penalty kicks.
The team quickly trailed. The next shot had to go in, or it was all over.
It was my daughter’s turn.
She approached, planted, and let it fly. The ball arced toward the net …
Just a little too high.
Game, season … this season of her life, with these kids, playing together, becoming teenagers together … over.
Just like that.
These moments never make the ‘Gram.
Anguish radiated on her face and in her posture. Some kids own it so deeply, take it so personally, that you can actually see their souls crack open. My daughter is one of those kids.
My soul felt like it split, also. And there was not a damn thing I could do about it.
I couldn’t helicopter in, dropping aid like a United Nations relief unit. I couldn’t take her place. I couldn’t petition for a do-over.
So I just stood there, watching sports teach her that sometimes life swipes you with an angry bear claw even when you work hard and try your best.
It hurt because of my desire to protect her and deflect her pain.
But some parents get it twisted. They try to live through the athletic achievements of their kids.
This day included one of those parents.
Lesson #2: There will always be that parent
This guy …
Let’s call him The Shrieker.
The Shrieker’s son played for the other team. Each time our team missed a penalty kick, The Shrieker squealed with delight:
“Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!”
After my daughter’s kick, he shrieked again. But this time, the stakes were higher. Her miss meant victory for his son. So The Shrieker just kept shrieking and fist pumping.
My daughter stood alone, staring at the goal, fresh tears rolling down her face. The Shrieker juxtaposed the moment with his personal soundtrack.
Without thinking, I spun on my heels and marched down the sideline. Fists clenched. Arms ramrod straight. Jaw tight enough to bite through iron.
I halted inside the personal space of The Shrieker.
“Hey, man,” I started, peering not at him but approximately ten miles through him. “She’s standing out there in tears after that miss. Maybe you could dial it down a notch.”
The Shrieker went silent.
Looking like a startled ostrich, he telescoped his head backward as if he were too nearsighted to make out my face.
“I’m just cheering on my team,” he proclaimed with the feigned incredulous innocence of a crooked politician.
A second parent, chimed in. “No you’re not,” she said. “You’ve been a jerk the entire game.”
“You’re cheering on kids missing penalty kicks,” I clarified. “Try to have just a little class.”
I walked away. Better to create some space than to find myself in some YouTube video rolling around in the grass with this guy.
He continued a half-hearted defense, trailing off as a growing jury of his peers convicted him of first-degree assholery.
With The Shrieker disposed of, it was time to rally my daughter’s recovery. She had another game to play, with a different team in another league.
Lesson #3: Your kids can teach you lessons, if you’re open to it
We sat in the parked car. A light drizzle peppered the windshield.
“I just want to go home,” Avery said through sniffles, head drooping. “I don’t want to play another game.”
I responded gingerly. “It’s the best thing for you. To just get back out there.”
“Let’s just sit here for a minute,” I continued. “And get this all out.”
She did. She cried and was angry and honestly I wanted to do the same. It’s fine for dads to be emotional, but sometimes we have to be the sturdy oak tree. This was an oak tree moment.
After a few minutes, her tears subsided.
I looked at her side eye. “Ready?”
“Yeah,” she whispered.
Off we went.
In the next game, she did something for the first time on her new team. Darting and swerving into and through a forest of bigger, stronger boys … she scored a goal. Her co-ed team beat an all-boys team 3-0.
Avery gathered herself and then used failure as fuel. As my friend Charlie Bleecker pointed out, without missing the penalty kick in the first game, maybe she never scores in the second game.
If she, at 14 and without the life experiences to set the day’s events in perspective, could rally, get focused, and score on tougher competition, then so can I, in other kinds of games in life.
And so can you.
If you’re open to learning life’s lessons from wherever they may come, you can learn a lot from, and be inspired by, your own kids.
Small stakes, outsized emotions
Youth sports aren’t life-and-death situations. But they create moments that feel high-stakes, delivering lessons for kids that will apply for the rest of their lives.
Sometimes, those lessons are painful. Sometimes the pain turns into inspiration and redemption.
Sometimes the lessons are for parents, also. About how we have let our kids struggle and grow, even though that hurts us, also. About not living through our kids and being “that parent.” And about what our kids can teach us about resilience.
Even The Shrieker could learn lessons from his son’s games.
I hope so anyway.
Because seriously, someday someone is going to deck that guy.
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Your best yet. F@ck, this is good. Great writing, perfect pitch and superb narration of three very valuable points. Oh and The Shrieker’s brother lives in Greystones, Co. Wicklow and brings out The Strangler in me: maybe somebody will take them both down at the same time…