"C'mon, Michael!" the soccer coach calls to my 6-year-old son during a game. "The team needs you!"
My son sits on the sidelines happily smacking his action figures together while the other kids run hard, laugh out loud and attempt shots on the goal. Out there in the soggy Oregon grass, the players are pushing themselves beyond their limits, learning to pass to one another, figuring out how to communicate with coaches, and to understand the importance of teamwork.
My son, on the other hand, is missing out on all these life skills.
I long for my son to experience all that I reaped as a student athlete who played soccer, lacrosse and ice hockey. I want him to feel the joy of chasing a ball side-by-side with a friend and communicating wordlessly with that friend while striving toward a common mission. I want him to goof up alongside a best buddy, maybe dribble the ball in the wrong direction and laugh so hard he can barely breathe. I want him to feel the ecstasy of high-fiving his teammates after a miraculous team win.
And at the end the day, I want my son to take all the lessons he learned from his mistakes, heartbreaks, challenges and achievements into the rest of his life. Through sports, I'm convinced he'll become a better communicator, better friend, disciplined worker, good team player and more confident human being.
But no, there he is, on the sidelines, Scooby-Doo action figures in hand, crunching them together and chatting with himself about the mystery he's solving along with Velma and Shaggy.
Michael has no clue about what he's missing or might miss today, tomorrow and even maybe for the rest of his life.
That thought frightens me, so I imagine all the ways I can nudge him into playing soccer. I could bribe him with an ice cream cone later today if only he'll drop his action figures and join the other players right now. I might lecture him about why he shouldn't abandon his team when they need him. And there are possible punishments: I could take away his beloved Scooby unless he gets in the game.
Out on the field, Michael's good friend dribbles all the way down the field and shoots. Even though the boy misses, his face is radiant. I'm sure the boy's confidence grows three-fold at that moment.
I want so much for Michael to experience that feeling. I'm thinking about getting down on my knees and begging. "Please, Michael, do it for me; your friends need you, your coach needs you..."
But wouldn't my begging, bribes and threats only pressure my son to do something he doesn't feel comfortable doing -- for whatever reason? Don't I understand only too well how kids suffer when parents pressure them in sports? I know the statistics: More than 70 percent of all kids drop out of sports by the time they're 13 because they're not having any fun. Why? Because the adults pressure them, just like I'm tempted to pressure my son right now.
Then I'm struck by a memory of my own sports experience: As a college soccer player, I was invited to play ice hockey, and the coach appointed me starter. A novice skater, I was terrified of being injured. Rather than succumbing to pressure to tough it out, I demoted myself to the third line. All my years of sports had taught me, among other things, about my limits. I knew I would never be brave enough to be a starting hockey player.
As I recall this experience, another boy joins Michael to knock action figures together. Then they decide to kick a ball around on the grass next to the soccer field. They chase, giggle and high-five each other.
And then I realize: In the pressure-cooker game of youth sports, my son is off to a great start.
Not only is he certain about what feels right for him -- a lesson I didn't learn until I was much older than 6 -- but he also understands how to have fun with another Kindergarten boy, messing around with a ball on a soggy Oregon field.
Yes, he's at risk of losing a lot if he doesn't play -- but much more if I pressure him.
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