I'm Lindsay Ferrier, a Nashville writer with a passion for family travel, exploring Tennessee, and raising kids without losing my mind in the process. This is where I share my discoveries, along with occasional deep thoughts, pop culture tangents and a sprinkling of snark. Want to get in touch? Use the CONTACT form at the top of the page.
May 30, 2013
Longtime readers of this blog know that when my stepdaughters were younger, we lived, ate, slept and breathed soccer. Both girls played recreational soccer, junior high and high school soccer, 3 v. 3 soccer, and winter indoor soccer, and Dennis coached nearly all of their teams.
We started Punky in soccer when she turned three, but it soon became clear that soccer really wasn’t her thing. She was done with the sport by the age of five. (We have a difference in opinion, apparently, as to how that happened!) Bruiser also started at three and clearly wasn’t ready to commit to the sport, either. We decided to pull him and let him tell us if and when he was ready to try again.
This past year, Bruiser started kindergarten, discovered that all his new buddies were playing soccer, and asked to play again. We signed him up for a small team of five and six-year-olds. The other boys on his team weren’t future Olympic athletes, but they had been playing for a few seasons and had a basic understanding of what they were doing on the field. Bruiser did not. He was completely clueless about soccer, and at the first few practices and games, that was very, very obvious.
It was also obvious that he was having the time of his life.
That smile never left his face, from the time he got on the field until the time he got off. He may have been running in the wrong direction at times. He may have gotten nowhere near the ball. But he was having so much fun!
And I had been on the sidelines of the soccer fields long enough to know that in recreational soccer, among five-year-olds, that was what really mattered.
I quickly learned, though, that not every parent agreed with me.
I had heard over the years that we had it relatively easy on the girls’ soccer sidelines. According to the moms I knew, boys’ soccer took parental competitiveness to a whole new level. I learned this past season that they were right– At Bruiser’s soccer games, most of the boys’ dads were in attendance acting more like personal trainers than fathers. They shouted directives at the boys from the sidelines and whispered strategies in their ears during the breaks. Some teams showed up with not one but several coaches, dads who stood on the players’ side of the field dressed in matching tracksuits and sunglasses, coolly assessing the boys’ skills as if they were staff members on an NFL football team.
Our own coach quickly grew agitated if our boys weren’t doing well during their games, and began shouting at them with a sense of urgency and frustration. He seemed to be shouting my son’s name more than anyone else’s, and that wasn’t much of a surprise, I guess- Bruiser was obviously new to the sport. What really bothered me was that the coach’s son constantly ridiculed Bruiser on the field. The coach would tell him to stop when it happened, but it happened a lot and I could tell it bothered my son. I also suspected that the son was just repeating what he heard his dad say in private.
Things came to a head at a practice a few weeks ago. Bruiser was on the field with the other boys and the coach was shouting directions at them, many of which contained soccer terms that I’m sure my son didn’t understand. At one point, the coach yelled at Bruiser to pass the ball to his older son, who was practicing with the boys. Bruiser paused, his foot on the ball, grinning.
“PASS THE BALL TO JEREMY!” the coach shouted again. Bruiser still stood there, his smile wavering. He didn’t know who Jeremy was. I could see the gears turning in his brain. What to do? What to do?
“BRUISER! LISTEN! TO! ME! PASS THE BALL! TO! JEREMY!!”
“Wow, he’s a little…. intense today, isn’t he?” a mom murmured beside me. I nodded.
Bruiser finally kicked the ball, but it wasn’t to Jeremy. The coach quickly strode over to Bruiser. “BRUISER, LOOK AT ME,” he shouted. He grabbed Bruiser’s shoulders and turned him to face him. “LOOK! AT! ME! YOU NEED TO PAY ATTENTION! WHEN I TELL YOU TO DO SOMETHING, YOU DO IT! WHEN I TELL YOU TO PASS THE BALL TO JEREMY, YOU PASS THE BALL! PAY! ATTENTION! DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?!”
The mom beside me exhaled loudly, muttered something, stood up from the picnic table where we were sitting and walked away. I sat there, my fists clenched. This was it. This was one of those do-or-die parenting moments. No one had ever shouted at my son like that. Not my husband. Not me. No one. And obviously, the problem wasn’t that my son wasn’t paying attention- It was that he didn’t know the game, and he sure as hell didn’t know who Jeremy was.
So what should I do? I wanted to stride onto the field, take my son by the hand, and walk away. And yet- I didn’t want to be one of those hovery, helicoptery parents.
I looked closely at my son out on the field. Miraculously, he seemed unfazed. He nodded at the coach and continued fumbling his way through practice. Once it was over, I smiled at him as if nothing was wrong and we went home.
But I knew I had to do something.
And this is where ten years spent raising my older stepdaughters comes into play. As parents, most of us walk a fine line when it comes to our children’s battles. We want to raise our children to be self-sufficient, to face adversity with confidence, to realize that some people are just mean, and that life does not revolve around them or their comfort or their happiness. Those are the noble reasons why we stay out of their struggles. The not-so-noble reasons are that intervening is awkward. Uncomfortable. No one likes the mom who’s always showing up to complain. We don’t want to be That Mom, and so often we say nothing. We stay out of it. We let it go.
Looking back, though, there were too many times when I didn’t intervene and now think I should have. Why didn’t I call the mother of that horrible bully and politely tell her what was going on? Who cares what she would have thought of me, or what she would have told her friends? And why didn’t I complain about the high school teacher who started texting his female students the day they turned eighteen? At the time, I didn’t want to betray my stepdaughters’ confidence, but WHAT WAS I THINKING? The school should have known about that!
As I thought about Bruiser’s practice, I realized that this was a defining moment for me as his mother. Was I going to let it go? Or was I going to do the awkward thing and speak out? I slept on it, and in the morning, I sent this e-mail:
As you might have guessed, I wasn’t very happy about how practice went yesterday. You seemed to spend a lot of time yelling at Bruiser and complaining that he wasn’t listening—to the point that other parents around me were commenting on your behavior. I’d hope you’ll think about a few things:
1. Bruiser is in kindergarten. Like most other kids his age, he doesn’t respond well to a man yelling at him in his face to pay attention. You wouldn’t talk to a friend or even a stranger on the street that way. Why would you talk that way to a six-year-old boy?
2. Bruiser has never played soccer before. Yesterday was his third practice. Ever. He definitely still looks a little clueless out there, and clearly doesn’t always know what you’re talking about when you yell directives at him. He also doesn’t know all the boys’ names yet, particularly those who sometimes practice with his team but aren’t actually ON his team. So when you yell at him to pass the ball to Jeremy and he doesn’t do it, I don’t think that warrants a shouted lecture on his failure to listen. He didn’t know who Jeremy was. Jeremy is not on his team.
3. I’ve been a soccer coach’s wife for ten years now and I can tell you unequivocally that recreational soccer, particularly at the kindergarten level, is not all about WINNING and SCORING– despite what certain parents would have you believe. It’s about learning to play the game, developing physical confidence, getting exercise, becoming a team player, and fostering an appreciation for the sport. Most importantly, it’s about having fun. If kids decide they want to be more competitive, they can try out for a travel team. In rec soccer, you will probably always have kids on your team who are really good. You will also have kids on your team who have never played and aren’t very good at all. I know that can be frustrating for a coach, but I hope you’ll remember that in recreational soccer, both of these kids are equally important. It’s up to you to make sure both of these types of kids feel good about themselves and comfortable with the fact that they’re all learning at different paces and skill levels.
4. I would like you to make sure that your child stops mocking Bruiser’s lack of soccer expertise at every single game and practice. How you parent your kids is totally your business- but I don’t want your kid to make fun of my kid any more, and you are the only person who can make that happen.
You should know that we are working with Bruiser to get him up to speed on soccer. Dennis has been practicing with him on the fields a few times a week, and we feel like he’s improving, slowly but surely. But you know what? He may never be very good. And on a kindergarten rec soccer team, that should be okay. Right now, Bruiser smiles the whole time he’s on the field, whether he’s practicing or playing. I don’t want that feeling taken away from him when he’s six years old– hence this e-mail, which I really hate to write. I am not someone who enjoys confrontation, although you wouldn’t know that reading this, would you? Hello, Mother Bear.
I want to move forward and have a great season, truly I do, but I believe in clearing the air when there’s a problem. Dennis and I are happy to discuss this with you in person and then put it behind us. I hope we can sort this out and all have a better soccer experience.
To his credit, the coach responded immediately and apologized. More importantly, he laid off Bruiser after that. My son ended the season excited about playing again in the fall. And he just might suck. And I hope everyone is okay with that. And if they’re not, well, I’ll deal with that when it happens.
But I’m sharing this with you now to give you encouragement to stand up for your child when you see something happening that shouldn’t be happening. I want to let you know that while it may seem unbearably awkward now, there’s a very good chance you won’t regret it five or ten years down the road, and there’s a very good chance you WILL regret a decision NOT to speak out.
Of course, there will be times when I won’t intervene and will let Bruiser fight his own battles- but not when he’s six years old, facing off against an adult.
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You are AWESOME. There are a thousand ways that you could have dealt with that situation. It’s never easy as a parent (or a stepparent) to know whether a line is the line you should cross, and if you want to cross it for them or for yourself.
Bravo, woman. Bravo.
Thank you! 🙂
I have been reading your blog since Bruiser was 10 months old. I feel like I am watching him grow up. I think you struck the perfect balance with that email and the fact that the coach responded the way he did proves it. Bruiser is one lucky bear to have you for a mom. You are awesome!
That’s so sweet. Thank you, Cathy.
Well said. You are my idol!
I coached soccer for K, first and second grades. It’s all about having fun at this age. I kept my mouth shut while the kids were on the field. The only thing Brusier needs to learn is how to dribble around another player instead of kicking the ball forward into their legs. Work with him at home by giving him the ball while you stand a few feet in front of the goal and telling him repeatedly to go around you for the goal. Be slow to move from side-to-side to block but don’t try very hard. They don’t need to pass at this age or pay much attention to the coach.
The parents on some other teams we played had a win-at-all-costs mentality. One team coached their kids to have one player run down by the goal and wait for the ball to be kicked to him because there was no offsides rule in this league. Their coach told me they could do this because there was no rule against it. Sorry coach, you’re wrong! just because there’s not a rule doesn’t make it okay.
This same team – on another occasion – had a player who knocked my son down to prevent him from scoring a goal. The kid who knocked him down then pretended to fall on him but obviously did it to prevent him from getting up. As the kids teammate ran up to take the ball away my son reached out with his hand to push the ball away and it went into the goal. The parents of the other team began screaming “HANDBALL.” What my son told me later was that the boy wouldn’t get off of him and he was afraid of being kicked with the ball so close to him. When the other boy ran off the field later I heard his mother say she was proud of him.
One thing I find troubling is that kids have only one chance when they are young to get into a sport and if they don’t it’s too late to catch-up. I’ve been told that starting a sport at 10 or 12 is actually better because they become skilled more quickly at this age. The problem is that the culture of sports doesn’t allow for kids to start late. It’s unbelievable that Bruiser is experiencing this at such a young age. I’m always amazed when people think kids will learn sportsmanship or character from youth sports.
I would say MOST of the teams we played this season had coaches who put a kid in front of the goal- The problem is that the referees generally are 12-year-olds who are too afraid (or clueless) to tell the coach that goal tending is not allowed. It’s SO FRUSTRATING. When Dennis was coaching Punky’s team, he would sometimes politely tell the coach– and that, as you can imagine, often went over like a lead balloon!
I needed to hear this. I struggle with these decisions too and I am pretty shy about confrontation (scared of it really) but as a parent I know there will be times I will just have to get over it. I recently faced one of those moments actually. Thanks for writing this!
Just trust me when I say that chances are, five years from now you won’t even know the people you’re dealing with today. I look back on my stepdaughters’ junior high and high school years and wonder why I was so worried and nervous about dealing with parents and teachers. I don’t see or socialize with ANY of them now. Who cares what they thought of my decisions? This has really helped me judge what to do with my little ones now.
Very brave and absolutely the right thing! I coached my daughter’s team for two seasons and did a ton of research on what 5 and 6 year olds can understand when it comes to soccer. All the research shows that it’s actually conceptually really hard for kids this age to pass the ball. Anyway, I applaud you for butting in!
Thanks, Kathy! Dennis did the same thing when he coached Punky’s team from 3-5. He read a ton of books about coaching small children and he’s had a hard time biting his tongue this season!
Once again-you nailed it. As a mom, I think we all have that inner mother bear & every now & again it’s important to let it show. I was so impressed with your letter, I hope if I ever have to handle a situation of that sort I can be half as articulate.
Thank you, Andi!
The timing of this column is prescient. I am going through issues with my teenage son. He is of average intelligence but has an extraordinarily difficult time “reading” the nonverbal messages, meanings, and body language that comprise the majority of how we communicate. I hate getting involved for the same reasons you mention, but when I don’t, he often gets overlooked in favor of kids that don’t have the problems he has. Thank you for showing me a good example of how to be assertive without being aggressive or overly-personalizing the situation. By sharing your experience, you have done a good deed today as far as I am concerned. Thank you!
At some point when I was dithering over how awkward it was going to be to confront the coach (whom I’ve known as an acquaintance for years), I realized that this was a defining moment for me as Bruiser’s mom, and that I might as well get used to awkward moments now, since there are sure to be more of them! I will always weigh each situation carefully before I get involved, but I do want to be ready to go whenever the occasion calls for it.
This is why I come back to your blog day after day. You always know what issues a mom really worries about. This is an issue I have been grappling with since we moved to a new town. Thank you for the courage 🙂
Thanks, Jenna! I’ve got your back. 🙂
mamma bear for the win!
Well played Mama Bear!
Love this, love you.
Thanks Tori! You know I love you too, and I MISS YOU!!!!
Amen, Lindsay. As another soccer parent, I have been there, done that and have the T-shirt. It’s one of the reasons I had to start coaching, to keep my kids away from bozo, over-competitive soccer dads. Great post.
I’m afraid that Dennis is slowly but surely being sucked back in… 😉
I love this post, go Mama Bear, go!!! We need more mamas like you. Thanks for this post, it is so important.
I really felt like I needed to share this to let other parents know they’re not alone when they choose to speak out on behalf of their kids. Even though the act often feels very, very lonely.
I also think that sleeping on it before acting is a really good idea! I wrote the e-mail the same day and heavily edited it the next morning before sending- The original wasn’t quite so… polite. 😉
Bam, girl! That was incredibly well-handled. Stern yet polite. I’ll bookmark this for future reference.
Great- I was hoping it might help parents compose letters in the future. 🙂 I would have liked to see someone else’s before I sent mine!
I absolutely LOVE this letter. I had a similar experience in my son’s first year of soccer, same deal with the coach’s kid (who TO THIS DAY has landed on his hockey team and ball hockey team, and who we can’t seem to get away from!) — and I just hate that it took away all his confidence. Although he played one more year of soccer, he never got past feeling less than the other kids, no matter what I say to the contrary. That coach and his son took away the fun for him, and that uncertainty has followed him to every other sport, which makes me incredibly sad. He’s six years old. Way too early to be dealing with idiots like them. So happy that Bruiser got out unscathed and that you shouldered it for him.
Ugh. That sucks. Dennis read a study that said 80% of kids drop out of sports by age 12, and a large number of them do so because a coach or teammates made them feel like they weren’t good enough. Reading that really changed the way he coached.
…And that’s exactly what has happened to us. Our middle schooler can’t play any sports just for fun. There aren’t purely recreational sports anywhere anymore. It’s all competitive, especially as they get older. We are starting to see the same problems with my 9 year old’s soccer team. Other kids ridiculing him if he makes a mistake on the sidelines. I don’t give it long before he too is out of all sports and it breaks my heart. Good for you for not letting it happen to your son.
You are THE BEST. Thank you for the inspiration.
You are a super mom! Without your intervention, Bruiser, and probably a few of his teammates, might have formed an incorrect conclusion at age six that he’s (or they’re) not an athlete, but now he (they) will have the opportunity and confidence to stay active. That is a pretty big deal when you consider the big picture. You also did that coach a big favor and made him a better coach and dad. I am also proud of him for acknowledging his actions and genuinely considering how he behaves. It’s not easy to admit our mistakes, but he did. I think that says a lot for his character. Kudos to both of you!
Good for you and even better for Bruiser!
Thanks for sharing this! I have been coaching 4/5soccer for 4 years and it is by far my favorite age group. Managing the expectations of parents AND sometimes other coaches has been the most difficult part of coaching. I’ve found that when I am able to educate the parents about what is age appropriate, encourage them to have patience, and remind them the true value of sports at this age the season is more successful. When parents and coaches understand the true skills being learned at age five (listening skills, not hitting their friends,taking direction from someone other than mom/dad, enjoying excersize, motor skills) their focus changes. I’m glad that you stepped in as a parent, I often find myself gently “stepping in” to remind parents of the positive changes I see when they get a little critical. It’s important that we all work to remember that they are FIVE, and values like hard work, teamwork, fairness, and fun are more important than winning and goals at any age.
Check out st. Bart’s soccer league off Hilsboro rd..we had a similar experience in the league you are playing in and are sooooooo much happier. I wish I had sent an email though to the coach when it happened to us. Way to go!