Parenting the Beautiful Game, #2

Over two years ago, the Parent Imperfect published a first post on the “soccer Dad” aspect of his parenting experience. On an impossibly snowy March day in Boston, it is time to return to that theme. That first post described how Vince became interested in soccer, and how his interest came to an abrupt end in ninth grade. We thought we were done with watching kids play soccer, and we missed it.

Ms. Connie had attended dozens of Vince’s soccer games and had shown amazingly little interest in the sport. As far as sports went, gymnastics was her thing. No cheering for her brother, no kicking balls on the sidelines, no playing on the field at halftime…none of that. She never said it, but one sensed that she thought that any game that her brother could play at a competitive level couldn’t really be all that interesting or challenging. Being the parents we are, we signed her up (against her will) at one point for Jamaica Plain Youth Soccer, but she was immediately impatient with the laid back, non-competitive nature of the program. She wanted to be on a team with a uniform, and she wanted to WIN, every week. She bailed on that experiment, quite quickly.

She progressed quickly in gymnastics, but, as she grew taller, the injuries started piling up (the two things are not unrelated). She also started to put more pressure on herself, which, in such an individual sport can be a very difficult thing. She loved the sport and her coach, but the whole experience became increasingly stressful for her, physically and emotionally.

I can’t remember who it was, but in spring of her 6th grade year, a friend told her that she should give soccer a try. That, of course, had much more effect than anything the parents might say. At first she was put off by the idea of starting a sport that others had been playing for years, but she decided to give it a try. The lesson here is that it is never too late to try something new.

The rest of the story is probably predictable. She went back to JP soccer, and they put her on a team made up mostly of girls who knew the game, but were playing for fun, rather than blood. Connie was fine with that, at first. She loved soccer from her second Day One, and has never really looked back.

For the parents, it started out very much like a continuation of the soccer life with brother Vince. She was going to one or two low-key practices each week, and a game on one of the weekend days. The team was called a “travel” team, so we occasionally had to go to Needham or Belmont to play a game. We huffed and puffed about “all that driving around,” but she was so excited about playing that we were happy to support that passion.

The parents who were coaching her team quickly noticed this passion, and moved her to a team with other girls who took the whole thing a bit more seriously. There were two or three girls on the new team who were clearly as excited about playing soccer as Connie. This, in turn, intensified her passion. It was great to see this group of girls playing off of each other’s passion. Before long, they were organizing their own practice sessions on the English High field.

At the end of the spring season in 7th grade, the father of one of these girls came to me to say that his daughter wanted to try out for a “club” team called Valeo, based in Newton. After years of having a high-level boys program, Valeo was going to begin a girls’ program, apparently under some legal pressure. It was one of the private clubs that had always bothered me, because these were “elite” places that only wanted the best players and the cost of membership excluded a lot of people. This other father talked to the club about Connie and did everything but make the call for us, so, with no small amount of hesitation, I called.

The Valeo people made it clear that, since they were trying to build a team, they were willing to be extremely flexible with us on the cost of membership. This was important to a  “frugal” parent like myself. It turned out that almost all of the girls in her emerging little group were going to give Valeo a try, so we decided to do the same.

Playing for Valeo meant driving to Newton for practice, instead of Jamaica Plain. It also meant travelling much further for games (as far away as Connecticut for some games). She would be playing in Valeo’s very nice facility in Newton, and would be coached by a professional coach who had experience playing soccer at a semi-professional level. Perhaps the biggest change was that, rather than playing with whoever showed up to play town soccer in JP, she was playing with girls from several Boston suburbs, most of whose parents could afford the cost of a soccer club.

I still remember that, on one of my first trips to the Valeo facility in Newton, I ran into another Roslindale parent whose son played with one of the elite Valeo boys’ teams. I had coached with this parent in the Jamaica Plain’s Regan Youth Baseball League, the baseball equivalent of the town soccer program. He stopped in his tracks when he saw me wandering through the Valeo parking lot, probably looking like I was trying to steal stuff out of someone’s car.

-What are you doing here?
-(sheepishly) Connie is on one of these teams.
-Really? So is [my son]. We should be in touch about rides. This is wild, huh? You’ve probably figured out that this is not Jamaica Plain Youth Soccer over here.
-Yeah…even I can get that…

Truer words were never spoken. The move to Valeo represented the early stage of a big change in Connie’s life and that of her family. Under the guise of pursuing her passion, the move put us on a path that has taken us places that we would have never imagined going, and it’s not over yet.  Deep involvement in the world of elite girl’s soccer came through a number of small changes, all of which seemed perfectly appropriate, if troubling, at the time.

Fast forward, three years. The weekend before last, we piled into our Prius and drove through the first nor’easter of March to Huntington, Long Island. Symbolically, the police closed the Throg’s Neck Bridge to truck traffic because of the high winds, causing a back-up for miles on all roads leading to the bridge. How’s that for an omen? You can guess what would motivate us to drive south on that wild weather day. Hours later than expected, we finally got to our hotel, appropriately located very near the setting of the B-movie classic, “The Amityville Horror.” There, we joined literally hundreds of other families who had made the journey from as far away as Ohio to participate in the Manhattan Kick-off Classic, held on Long Island, of course.

That next morning, Connie was up very early to put on the white uniform of FC Boston, as well as a scary-looking knee brace. At 10AM, she walked onto the field to play a soccer game for the first time in eleven months. Last April. she tore her ACL in a silly 5-on-5 tournament held at a Catholic School somewhere on the South Shore. I literally don’t remember where it was. We won’t be doing more of those silly side tournaments.

ACL tears are an epidemic, especially among girls on the intense year-around soccer circuit into which Connie eventually moved. She had surgery in June and then spent over eight months doing intensive rehab on the knee and the hamstring muscle that was cut in order to repair the knee. There were many dark and stormy days during those eleven months without soccer, but we have somehow come out the other side. The work and discipline required of Connie to get herself back into position to play soccer was incredible. In a strange way, I think it was the physical and time demands of rehab that kept us all at least marginally sane.

That morning, the sky was deep blue, but the temperature was under 40 degrees and winds were gusting to 50-60 m.p.h. Perfect soccer weather. The parents were freezing to death on the sideline, but Connie was in heaven. After practicing with her team for three weeks, she finally was going to play The Beautiful Game again. Her team is now made up of a full set of driven 16-year-olds who live literally all over Massachusetts. She is the sole Boston girl on this FC Boston team. People do a double-take when we say that we live in Roslindale. In addition to tagging along on trips to Long Island, Pennsylvania or North Carolina, the parents of these girls drive them over an hour to twice-weekly practices in Taunton, Dedham or at Catholic Memorial, just down the road for us. For the most part, it is the mothers that make these trips. The girls’s families want at least one parent to be present at these games. We, of course, want to support our daughters, but we also want to be there just in case something happens. As we know too well, when soccer is played with such intensity, things do happen…

FC Boston won that first windswept game, 1-0 against a powerful team called Dynamo. Connie was not the player she was last April, but she did fine, and she had no pain in the knee, except for that caused by the brace. Her mother and I looked at each other occasionally, as we shivered on the sideline, as if to say, “What the hell are we doing here,?” but we knew what we were doing. Like all the other lost souls on that chilly sideline, we were parenting The Beautiful Game. Stay tuned…

 

 

 

 

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