Soccer fanatic

It would be an understatement to say that our 6-year old son Ezra loves soccer. His pet fish is named “Messi” after the Argentinian soccer star Lionel Messi. His favorite thing to wear is a soccer jersey. He thinks that the best possible scenario for fun is the combination of him, his brother, his father, and a soccer ball.

 

Seeing that Ezra has only lived with us for just a little more than a year, we know that this love of soccer can’t be wholly attributed to our prompting. It started way before we met him. Though soccer ranks somewhere around 6th place in popularity in America, it’s #1 in the world. All you have to do is take an international trip to experience this. My husband and I saw this firsthand when we traveled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ezra’s birth country.

 

Ezra was 3-years old at the time. He was shy and uncertain of these American strangers (us) who were so foreign to him in speech, appearance, and pretty much every other way. Bouncing a small soccer ball, we persuaded him to come outside to a gravel parking area near our hotel room. Once outside, I videoed Ezra timidly playing a game of catch with Brent. Then, without warning, instead of just catching and tossing, Ezra stuck out his head to make contact with the ball and bounce it back to Brent. For the next 4:37 minutes of video footage, Ezra expertly headed the ball as Brent happily realized that this was a soccer-loving, little boy.

 

Fast forward to present time. Ezra is on a soccer team with 5 other kids. Chanting like a cloistered monk, he prays the night before a game or practice: “Please no rain. Please no rain. Please no rain.” He cheers for his team’s victories—large or small—and empathizes with the opposing team’s defeat (which is tricky because it’s always anyone’s guess who actually wins these free-for-alls).

 

This past Saturday his enthusiasm may have exceeded his sportsmanship. When he stole the ball from an opponent and dribbled it down the field in an uncontested breakaway, he mockingly waved to the players as he passed them, saying: “Goodbye everyone.” Then he took a shot and hit the post. Pride goeth before a fall.

 

Speaking as a completely unbiased observer, Ezra is the best 6-year old soccer player in the universe. As I watch him play now, I think about the countless hours he and his Congolese friends played soccer in the dry dirt of the lots surrounding his orphanage. This was a game meant to engage a variety of ages and sizes. They only needed a soccer ball—or something homemade resembling a ball—and rocks or sticks to designate the goals. They didn’t wear fancy cleats or shin guards or uniforms. They were barefoot in hand-me-downs and the best thing they wore was the smiles on their faces.

 

Who’s to say if Ezra will continue to play soccer or if this is just a passing fancy? Time will tell if his love for this game will diminish and he will make room for other sports and activities in its place. What I can tell you is that his experiences playing soccer as a small child has made him the player he is today—fast, skilled, fearless. It has shaped and equipped him.

 

When I’m in an especially introspective mood and I think of my past, I can see how I was being prepared for my present situation. Relationships, jobs, events, heartbreaks all work together to give me a piece of what I might need now, just like Ezra’s early Congolese soccer experiences combine to create the soccer enthusiast I see each time he runs out onto the field.

Olympics Withdrawal

I’m suffering from Olympics Withdrawal. For those two precious weeks, my family sat around the TV like it was the 1950’s. We marveled at the swimmers and the gymnasts. We asked lots of questions, like is trampoline jumping really a sport (answer: yes) and where is the nation of Grenada (answer: the Caribbean) and what is “dressage” anyway (answer: horse dancing, I think)?

I teared up during medal ceremonies and full-out cried when they showed the back stories of some of the athletes who beat the odds just to make it to the games. The addition of the Refugee Team was a heartbreaking reminder of how so much of the world suffers in order to survive and find a home. For instance, Yusra Mardini, the Syrian athlete who, along with her sister, swam/pushed a boat for 3 hours towards land saving the 18 people onboard who were escaping from Syria. She showed strength enough to win a hundred gold medals in my book.

 

There were extraordinary moments of kindness during the games, too. When U.S. runner Abbey D’Agostino and New Zealand runner Nikki Hamblin collided during the women’s 5000m race, they stopped and helped each other to the finish line. Selflessness replaced competitiveness. The drive to help won over the drive to win.

Now that the medals have been awarded and all the athletes have gone home, I’ll look to other athletes (like my kids’ teams) to find more examples of good sportsmanship:

One of my favorite things about school swim meets is watching swimmers from competing teams cheer each other on. I love the notion that the swimmers who have finished should stay in their lanes, remaining in the water until everyone is done. Such a simple yet profound act of courtesy. And even if the last swimmer has been lapped by his opponents three times over, when he finally reaches the wall the swimmers and the crowd cheer as if he had won.

There is so much to learn from team sports and soccer is a favorite in my family. One phrase that pops up a lot, especially with younger soccer players is: “Same team!” When players stop talking to each other on the field—letting each other know they’re available or in need of assistance—and start thinking only in terms of themselves they forget to act like a team. Then everything falls apart. They inadvertently take the ball from a teammate or attempt a shot even if they could pass the ball to someone in a better position for scoring. That’s when you start to hear the parents and coaches remind the players, “Same team!”

Even though the Olympics creates a country versus country situation, I like that it also gives us a “Same team!” vibe. People from all over the globe who might not share a lot of common experiences find a place to compete. We find that though we may be different, in the end—as when the athletes file into the closing ceremonies, waving and smiling and joining the large throng of people—we’re all on the same team.

Soccer Mom

I am a soccer mom. If you’re not sure if you’re also a soccer mom, take this easy quiz:

 

If you have a sunburn that includes your nose and forehead (nothing covered by sunglasses), your legs from the hem of your shorts to your knees, and one side of your body predominantly over the other…you may be a soccer mom.

 

If you have very specific opinions on collapsible, camping chairs and have occasionally experienced jealousy when seeing other people with far better chairs—usually ones equipped with built-in umbrellas…you may be a soccer mom.

 

If you can find most or all of the following in your van or SUV: a ball pump, water bottles, long socks, and lots of grass…you may be a soccer mom.

 

If your son or daughter would consider the name “Messi” a compliment…you may be a soccer mom.

 

I grew up in a family where sports were an afterthought. Neither my sisters nor I played anything other than the piano. As teenagers, we attended many sporting events to cheer on our classmates, but it wasn’t life changing. In fact, “being competitive” was something I considered a character flaw. I’m beginning to change my mind.

 

On Sunday afternoon, I watched my son’s team play three games. Our team lost the first game, won the second game against a different team, and then had to play that first team—the ones who beat us mercilessly—again for the third game. All of us parents were dreading that third game. The boys were exhausted. I was praying for a freak thunderstorm to rush in and force us to call it off. But the whistle was blown for the game to begin.

 

They started off strong, defending positions to keep the other team from scoring but their defensive wall began to show some cracks. By halftime, it looked hopeless. Our team hadn’t scored and the other team was making it look too easy. Many parents yelled at the referees to make better calls, but deep down we all knew it was only going to get uglier.

 

I watched my son with a mother’s eyes. I looked for tears of frustration and signs of despair, but saw none. He would attempt passes that were quickly stolen by the opposition. Even when our coach moved him to play goalie and he failed to defend two goals, he kept on going. He played hard and called to his teammates as if there was still a chance for them to turn things around.

 

If this were a movie, I would finish the story with a triumphant ending: “They called timeout with minutes to go. In the huddle, they made a plan and Coach gave them a pep talk to end all pep talks. When playing resumed, they scored fifteen goals in a row and won!”

 

Since this wasn’t a movie, I have to report that they lost the game. I’m not sure about the final score because I stopped counting somewhere around 6-0. When it was over, I expected my son to be disappointed. He was mainly hungry.

 

As we prepared to leave, one of the players from the other team passed us. He said to my son, “Good game” and my son responded, “Thanks.” In that simple exchange, two ten year-olds taught me the healthy side of competition. They both played hard, but someone had to win and someone had to lose.

 

While he was on the field, my son was laser focused on the roles he had to play for his team. Because he gave it his all, when the game was over, he could walk away feeling good about what he had done. He knew there would be many more opportunities to prove himself later. He didn’t need a token trophy for participation or even a consoling ice cream cone. He hopped in the van, a true competitor.

 

Even if he had won the World Cup, I couldn’t have been prouder.