Lesson Learned On An Undefeated Soccer Season

~ Noticing the little things ~

My son’s school is uniquely located across the street from an idyllic park. After the last school bell sounds, you can find students playing handball in the park’s quaint amphitheater, beach volleyball in the sandbox, or soccer on the expansive grassy field.

Often I wonder if my son and his peers would look back on such an experience as an indelible childhood moment.

For my son, his first full year of in-person school in 2021 was met with so many firsts. First best friend. First childhood crush. First time playing organized sports.

I noticed his interest in soccer when he’d ask if he could go to the park after school to play soccer with his friends. As one of the taller kids in his first-grade class, my BIG Ol’ Boy’s style of play at the time was to just jog behind the other kids during the match.

No amount of encouragement could get my son to attempt a score or dribble the ball.

When I probed into my observation, he’d say, “it’s because I am not good, Papa.”

Having only played one season of organized basketball when I was in 7th grade, I didn’t want my son to experience the same feelings of inadequacy towards sports as I did.

Goal Setting – Scoring a Soccer Goal  

With only a month of school behind us, we entered October 2021 knowing we needed to prepare for his Student-Led Goal Conference. For kindergarten, he grew so much due to his goals. Naturally, I was looking forward to what he’d establish as his goals for this year.

As we convened the virtual meeting, I watched through ZOOM as my son meekly spoke about his goals. Among them, he told his teacher he wanted to learn the sport of boxing and soccer.

For his birthday a couple of weeks prior, I bought him boxing gloves and a reflex bag for our training sessions. It only made sense that I’d now buy him his first soccer ball.

Starting Simple 

When our time together resumed, I gifted Phillip the soccer ball and four small bright orange cones that we’d use for our makeshift goals.

We’d walk to the park after breakfast to kick the ball around. Then in the early evening, we’d set the cones up in the yard where we’d try to score goals on each other.

First one to ten wins! And yes, I rigged each game so he could have a comeback win. It was important to build up his confidence more than anything else.

Before long, those after-school matches no longer resulted in him jogging with the kids but actively participating. Each drive home after those after-school matches, I made it a point to build up my BIG Ol’ Boy!

Winter Soccer, Omicron, & Taking the Initiative 

With the pandemic still wreaking havoc in late fall of 2021, we continued our routine of going to the park for our one-on-one matches. When I received an email from his mother about winter soccer lessons, I agreed he was ready.

The lead-up to the season was matched by a build-up in his excitement. Admittedly, my excitement too. But when a classmate tested positive for Omicron, my son missed the first practice due to quarantine. Understanding that beginnings matter, I showed up to the first practice and video-recorded the drills.

When my son returned to me, we ran the drills in the yard. Rather than introduce the drill the same as the coaches who just modeled the technique maybe twice before telling the kiddos to go, I approached it Mr. Miyagi style.

“Wax on, wax off.”

No ball. Maybe a broom was involved. Maybe the base of our reflex bag. And when I introduced the ball, I noticed my son responding better than the other first-timers at the actual practice.

It was no surprise that after he cleared quarantine and attended the second practice, he shined. His confidence was there. All my sternness during our sessions coupled with explanations that “coach doesn’t mess around, so I’m getting you ready” had my son focused.

When the second practice ended, the coach made sure to catch my son’s attention as we were getting ready to leave.

“Great practice, PJ!”

All the sacrifices paid off. And my BIG Ol Boy nuzzled into my arm as we walked off fully aware that his trust in me paid off too.

First Game & Managing First Game Jitters 

PJ’s first game coincided with my birthday weekend. His nervousness was real. Once we arrived at the park, I knew he needed help calming his nerves. So I introduced him to power posing – a concept I learned about from Amy Cuddy’s popular TED Talk that inspired me to read her book, Presence, too.

With his arms bent and fist placed on his hips like Superman, I placed my hands on his head as I told him to breathe in and out. With his eyes closed, I had him visualize having fun. Then I asked him to think about scoring a goal and the feeling he’d feel doing so. When I asked what that feeling was, PJ said, “happiness.” With that, I kissed him on the forehead and we headed off to the field.

As parents, it’s not enough to simply tell our children that they’ll be fine when they are dealing with stress, nervousness, or anxiety. We need to equip them with the tools at a very young age when their trust in us is unwavering. Power posing leans on shifting our psychological makeup by changing our physiological makeup. Simply, we can create confidence by making ourselves larger. Bigger.

PJ scored his first and only goal of the season the day before my birthday. What more could I ask for! I’d like to believe the mental preparation played a role.

When I look back on the video, I barely made a sound. I didn’t scream because after one of his evaluation games when he missed a breakaway score, he told me he missed because of me. My cheer had scared him.

“Papa, next time don’t yell.”

So when the next time came, I kept my word as he scored on a breakaway goal. Afterward, when he was marveling at the video, he noticed I didn’t cheer and asked why. When I explained, he clarified his request by saying I can cheer after he scores because he wants to hear the love.

All that mattered to me was honoring my son’s feelings. While he never scored again, he prevented a lot of scores. Each time he did so, I cheered as if he scored the game-winning goal!

Discovering His Passion

As the season went on and the boys were extending their win streak, PJ began to fall in love with defense. I’ll always remember him saving a game by deflecting a goal. This particular weekend he wasn’t with me so I didn’t have a chance to debrief after the game as he was acting kind of awkward.

When we reconnected a few days later, I remember PJ telling me, “Papa, stopping that goal really mattered to me. Like it really mattered.

While I’d run drills with him that focused on dribbling the ball or scoring on me, I made it a point to respect his love for defense. I mean, it was about his passion. My role as his father was to cultivate his love of the game. Not my desire for him to score.

Noticing Loyalty Bind & Embracing the Moment

We always hear the cliche that sports teach us about life, right? The game that PJ saved by deflecting the goal was a day that I left feeling heartbroken despite the outcome. This particular weekend, PJ was not with me. I arrived eager to see and support my son. When I arrived, he was on the field playing a scrimmage before game time, so I wasn’t able to get his attention. When the match started, we made eye contact and acknowledged each other.

On weekends when PJ wasn’t with me, I’d respect his time with his mother and her side of the family by keeping my distance. For example, during water breaks, he’d jog over to them while I’d stand off to the side.

For me, it was about managing my energy and honoring myself. If a conversation wasn’t deliberately about our son, I had no interest in listening to conversations about their personal family dynamics.

To me, it was more respectful that I allowed them to be themselves by just moving away and focusing on the game. 

I think an unintended consequence of us keeping our distance was a developing loyalty bind with PJ. At least, I noticed he’d be tentative with his actions toward me when we weren’t together. And when it was our time together, I’d have to encourage him to engage with everyone.

I can only speak to my experience with my son. When we are together, my BIG Ol’ Boy is focused on me. He wants my full attention. He’s by my side. Draped all over me. Climbs and crawls all over me when we are working on a puzzle. He’s focused on his father. And I am focused on my son. Everyone on my side knows my son absolutely adores me.

Yet, when I left that game without receiving almost any acknowledgment, I was devastated. My son seemed so distant and I walked away heartbroken.

I knew my son was torn between expressing love for the two most important people in his life. Reflecting on the experience forced me to accept some hard truths. My decision to distance myself from his other family was creating conflict in him.

From co-parenting class, I learned about the concept of a loyalty bind. Simply put, a loyalty bind occurs when a child feels compelled to choose a side. With me opting to protect my energy from conversations that I did not need or want to hear and physically creating distance between the other half of his family, PJ didn’t know how to process what he was experiencing. So, how he responded to the situation, I think, was to attach himself to the parent he was with for the weekend.

I even noticed it when he was with me. He seemed hesitant to greet and interact with the other side despite my encouragement to “show proper love” or to “say proper goodbyes”.

Imagine how painful it was to realize that my actions, justifiable to me, were hurting my son. For him to seem so unnatural around me was troubling. After really thinking through the problem, I realized I needed to talk to my son.

When I began the conversation, I shared with him how that moment made me feel and he immediately apologized. I told PJ I wasn’t upset and he did not need to apologize. Then I told him I was curious about how he feels when both sets of parents are together. I suspected he wouldn’t know how to answer the question. PJ was a toddler when we divorced, so he only knows how to interact with us in his separate worlds with us.

Having anticipated he wouldn’t know how to answer the question, I knew how to build on the conversation. I reminded him, as I always do, that he’s surrounded by love. I reminded him that his family shows up to games because we love him and we want him to know that we support him. Then I told him, I know he loves his mother and when he’s with me, it’s totally okay for him to show her love. In fact, I told him he never has to ask me to go say hello that he can tell me he sees her and he can run as fast as he can to hug her. I explained to PJ that it’s natural for any child to be excited to see their parent at a game.

You see, I take great pride in the relationship I have with my son. It’s a relationship built on loving respect. One where I honor his feelings and work at cultivating a space where he feels free to share his feelings with me.

I was leaning on what he shared with me after the very first soccer evaluation where I showed up unannounced. It was his mother’s weekend and I’m sure he thought it would be business as usual. And with me arriving exactly at game time due to freeway construction, he didn’t notice I was there until the match started and he heard me cheering for him. On the outside, he barely had any reaction. Not until we reconnected did I learn how he truly felt.

Papa, I almost cried when I saw you, but I kept it in because I didn’t want people to see.”

Even typing those words got me emotional again. What I am trying to get across is I knew from that experience and countless others that my son was conflicted and hurting as much as I did that day because he felt he couldn’t be himself towards me.

We had this conversation before he left me, which meant the very next game he wasn’t with me. I’ll never forget arriving and noticing Phillip playing a scrimmage match with his friends. I stood near his mother after exchanging pleasantries and watched PJ for about five minutes. Suddenly, PJ looked up towards us and sprinted as fast as he could to the sideline, and hugged me like he never had before in their presence. He nuzzled his little head between my stomach and arms as I bent over and placed a kiss on his sweaty head.

“Hey, buddy, I love you.”

“I love you too, Papa.”

I left him with some encouraging words before he sprinted back to the soccer field. What a memorable experience that I’ll never forget! Honestly, when I look back on the moment, it was as if he needed permission to just be himself.

Final Game – Learning It’s About The Journey 

As the soccer season came to an end, PJ’s team was undefeated. They were always focused during the game. They communicated. They all understood their roles and had a profound appreciation for each other’s strengths. They seemed bonded together like a band of young brothers albeit all from different mothers.

With the last game approaching, PJ constantly shared how nervous he felt. He went so far as saying he rather lost every game and won the last one than risk the possibility of losing the last game and having their undefeated season spoiled.

The morning of the final game we had a beautiful conversation about what it means to do your best. Leaning on the teaching of the great UCLA coach John Wooden, I shared with PJ that someone can do their absolute best and lose just like someone can not do their best and win. At the end of the day, only he knows whether or not he did his best. Then I asked what was he going to do during the game.

“My best, Papa.” 

We slapped hands and took off.

Upon arriving, PJ was excited to see his uncle from my side there and he rushed over to give him a big hug! As the match started, things worked out where all of his family was together. During his water breaks, he was able to jog over, take a swig, get some love from us and jog back out to the field. And when the whistle was blown for the final time, PJ’s team was victorious, a perfect 7-0!

The season formally ended with a medal ceremony. Although everyone received a participation medal, for PJ and the team, it was a first-place medal!

I understand in this day and age we don’t want children to internalize losing and conflate the outcome with their self-worth. The fact of the matter was winning was important for the boys and they deserved to relish the moment knowing they were UNDEFEATED! 

For me, two moments stand out from that day. The first moment I noticed was only after looking through the pictures I took of PJ receiving his medal. He’s looking directly at my phone with his fist clenched and arm raised in the air. The joy of victory is on full display!

The second moment was when he was with the other side of his family. I could see tears welling up in his eyes and his body slightly shaking. I wanted to respect the moment he was sharing with them as they were taking pictures and recording him. When everything was over, and we were together I asked him what happened.

Papa, they were happy tears because of everything and because I knew I wasn’t going to see my teammates again.”

Gosh, hearing that melted my heart. As we talked more, I realized he shed a tear because he had a profound appreciation for the journey. 

A journey of confronting his fears. Power posing to combat his nervousness. Learning that the body’s feeling of nervousness is similar to the feeling of excitement and reframing everything from that perspective. Being permitted to love and love strongly on his family. Practice. Push-ups. Competing. Laughing. And bonding with family and friends because his passion for soccer made it all so very possible.

I know this was a long read. I embraced telling this story because I want fathers to know we truly matter. There are plenty of us who may not have the time we deserve. Even so, think about how you are using the time you have to make the most of it. This long story is merely a compilation of little moments that truly mattered to my son. It’s a story of love in action. Yes, many of us believe we should not have to fight for more time. Even so, while you fight legally, make sure to conserve your energy for creating those special moments with your child. And, always remember, the little things are truly the big things for our children.

  • Written March 2021

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