Within minutes of checking in at the soccer field, my son affixed a sticker with the number 9 on his left shoulder. He wore the requisite white jersey and black shorts, as noted in the detailed club soccer tryout email I’d received earlier in the week.
He hollered goodbye to me without even glancing back, as he took his lucky orange ball down the field to where his age group was warming up. Somehow this felt more significant than dropping him off at kindergarten for the first time. I swallowed hard and tried to shake off the mounting nerves.
I’ve known this day was coming for all of my adult life. I’ve spent more hours on the sidelines of a soccer field than anyone without a real working knowledge of the game probably should. My phone is filled with videos of my husband swinging our babies at a soccer ball so they could kick it across the living room before they could even walk.
Before I bought the minivan and put on my soccer mom hat (true story, I legitimately have a soccer mom hat. It’s super adorable, and I mean that without a trace of sarcasm), I spent Sunday afternoons watching my husband play in Santa Barbara men’s league soccer games. The year I begged my husband into retirement from his own fairly-time-consuming recreational soccer schedule was the year our four-year-old began playing in the local youth soccer league. My friends balked at starting him so early, but I feel like a mom can only say “please stop dribbling in the house” so many times to a three and a half year old (and her husband) before she signs him up and gets him on a team.
After his third game, my son got into the van and declared he didn’t want to play anymore. I whispered a silent “thank God” because picking turf off of knee socks had already become my least favorite activity, and bouncing a four-month-old while reading books to a two-year-old on the sidelines while simultaneously cheering as my son struggled in a clump of flailing shin guards was proving kind of stressful.
“Why do you want to quit?” I asked him.
“It’s just … the kids don’t ever spread out, and it’s hard not to push people … and my stomach hurts every time I don’t get the ball.”
This is how I interpreted his response: My poor baby is stressed and anxious. Let’s quit.
Here’s how my husband heard it: Now he has an internal motivation to break away and get the ball. We will harness this drive.
After about three years of kinda competitive (but mostly just fun) youth soccer, Mason has turned out to be a solid player. But he’s not Ronaldo. And if you’re the brand of crazy mom who lets her kid try out for competitive club soccer at age six and a half, you better believe that he’s going up against kids who are basically baby Ronaldos, little fast twitch juggling psychos with faux hawks and lucky balls.
Okay, my self-awareness might not be fully on point because as I type this I’m realizing that my kid also has a faux hawk and a lucky ball, but the point is 1) we are apparently crazier than I’m giving us credit for and that’s a little embarrassing and 2) my kid is not the best one out there, and that is a point on which I am fully aware.
Everything about these soccer tryouts felt like something out of a movie, right down to the coach’s German accent. Yes, German accent.
The coach quickly yelled the drill while the assistant coach scribbled on his clipboard. I strained to search my son’s face for signs of trauma. Mason did not seem stressed.
My daughters and I situated ourselves on a blanket behind several obvious helicopter parents who had set up camp on the sideline. They hovered close enough to the players that the coach had to wave them back. One couple unfolded beach chairs with attached awnings right behind the goal. These parents periodically yelled things like “Get after it, Johnny! Diego, focus Diego! Stop kicking grass, baby. Conner, eyes up! Eyes up!” I sipped my latte, then put on my sunglasses in effort to distance myself from their enthusiasm. This is a very casual thing we’re doing, I told myself. All of it is no big deal.
Then the one-on-one drill began. A skinny little blond boy with shaggy surfer hair and a sweatband came trucking down the field with the ball, and Mason sprinted toward him to steal it. From what I gathered, Mason was supposed to take the ball from the kid and then dribble it to the goal.
He got the ball.
And then the little blond kid stole it back. Oh hell no! This was a tryout. You cannot lose the ball in a tryout!
All of a sudden, I was the one with the stomachache when Mason didn’t have the ball.
In the blink of an eye, I had gone from lowkey latte lady with sunglasses to insane sports parent. I leaned forward and cringed, holding back the urge to yell. I found it hard to sit still, so I stood, gripping my coffee cup with one hand, frantically texting my husband the play-by-play in the other. The coach scribbled on his clipboard and called for Mason to get in the goal box.
A goalie drill?! That is too much pressure. This would be the end of me. I was Aly Raisman’s mom, bobbing and weaving from the sidelines.
Mason hunched with vigilance in the goal box and followed the ball. It seemed like he was doing well, but also I’m still not a great judge of soccer skills, and the coach scribbled a lot on his clipboard.
The coaches hollered for a break, so Mason jogged over to get his water bottle.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
“This is so fun. I definitely want to make this team mom. I love this.”
He loved it. Now what? What if he didn’t make it? What if he wasn’t fast enough or good enough or faux hawky enough?
I was dead.
Here lies Anna Jordan, once chill mother, killed by the stress of her own freakishly competitive spirit at the turf fields on a Wednesday afternoon in March.
Of all the times I’ve thought someone was judging me or my child, the judgment has never held any weight. But in this case, there was a chance that these coaches would look at my child, write down his number, and reject him.
This judgment meant something.
In fact, that was the whole point of what were doing: we had signed up to be judged, and somehow it was so much more difficult for me than any of the times I had signed up to be judged. I’ve tried out for teams and gone to job interviews. I’ve written school admissions essays and submitted tens on tens of stories for publication. I’ve experienced rejection first hand, and it didn’t feel like this.
I’ve heard people say that having a child is like putting arms and legs on your own heart and sending it out into the world. And it’s true. The moment the social workers told me to pick Mason up out of the car seat where he was screaming was the moment he became a part of me. Mason may not be my flesh and blood, but he is my heart and soul. And while we’ve had so many more challenging moments than the ones that occurred on the soccer field, up until this point Mason hadn’t ever faced rejection. And from where I sat on my blanket, no amount of bobbing or weaving would help him. There was nothing I could do to make him run faster or jump higher or bust out a bicycle kick that would take everyone’s breath away.
On the third day of the tryout (yes, we endured three days), the club director called a parent meeting. I abandoned my security blanket, walked to the far corner of the field, and tried not to fidget as the coach provided fifteen minutes of logistical details before he said, “There have been some rule changes in our league. As of this week, boys born in 2011 are no longer allowed to play on the Under 8 team. This is a new development that we just learned, so if your son did not turn 7 last fall, he is only eligible for our practice team.”
If I were capable of shooting fire from my eyes, I would have. Thank goodness for those sunglasses.
I wandered back to my blanket where Mason was waiting with his water bottle, and gave him the update.
“Yeah. They told us. It’s not a big deal though,” he said. “I had fun. We can just do it again next year.” My son shrugged and kicked his ball in the direction of the van.
Next year, a phrase my son tossed off as though the experience of the last week was barely lingering in his memory. Meanwhile, now that I’m sitting in a purgatory of delayed rejection, I may never unclench.
After a trip to the chiropractor and a few yoga classes, I’ve finally almost relaxed. And the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized that my kids don’t need me to be their coach or their trainer. I don’t need to be poised in a competitive fight stance ready to throw my mom-arm out to shield them from life experience. They don’t need me to shelter them from judgment or rejection or success, and they certainly don’t need to experience whatever stress I’m bringing into the situation. They’re children; their job is to try and fail or try and succeed, and to figure out what doing their best feels like. My job is to be their very best cheerleader. And when they run their sweaty little bodies over to me, I will hand them a water bottle and tell them I love them, that I think they’re awesome, and that I always want to be on their team.
So next year, I’ll still bring my sunglasses and my coffee, and I’ll camp out on my blanket, ready with a water bottle and a big hug. I’ll take deep breaths and flash big smiles. I’ll—You know, actually on second thought, next year I’ll just send my husband. Go team!
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