I am told that few states in the country have a higher level of participation of girls in soccer than Utah. I don’t doubt it. Every Saturday everywhere in this valley are wide swaths of soccer fields dotted with colored jerseys of girls, and boys, playing their hearts out in front of their parents and siblings. People by the thousands do this all along the Wasatch Front, screaming, laughing, yelling, chatting, enjoying the pleasures of warm sunshine, community, and family pride. Or at least as long as the weather holds. Soccer in the spring is generally unpredictable in Utah, sometimes happening in a minor blizzard, a wind storm, thunder and lightning, horizontal rain, brittle cold and clear days, or almost summer weather, causing parents and players alike to melt.
I don’t remember exactly when it was that I realized I was obsessed with soccer. First I was obsessed with watching it. I got season tickets with Real Salt Lake for their inaugural season and I spent countless hours watching English Premier League games. It didn’t help that after several years of this I spent six months in England and watched a few EPL games live. I had played for a few years in Connecticut where I grew up, but I had no real expertise or special skill. But I had discovered late in life, in my soccer life anyway, just how much I craved the chance to be in a full sprint on soft green grass, finding out what my body could do as I tried to teach my body skills it either never had or had long since lost. I found out, however, that my old body couldn’t do much, except get injured. First it was racquetball, which left me with plantar fasciitis in both feet and a pinched nerve in my neck. After a few years of soccer, hernia and knee surgeries followed, forcing me to drop yet another love. Several of us at a similar crisis of middle age used to play pick up together early in the morning before our families stirred. At one point we played for an entire year, every week outside. I remember at one point kicking the ball across an icy field, slipping and cutting my leg on the crunchy snow before the sun had fully risen.
But when the body no longer would tolerate the beating I was giving it, I turned to coaching my daughters on city recreation teams. I had no idea what kind of a vortex this would be, drawing us in year after year to greater levels of intensity and competition. We learned about club teams, club team divisions, about club fees, and club team travel. I learned about the woman who started girls club soccer in Utah. Someone started a rumor that she was lesbian to get her fired. She gathered her team and the parents and told them that she was, indeed, a lesbian and that if anyone had a problem with it, she would resign. Every player and every parent stood up for her and she continued. She remains a legendary and beloved coach in Salt Lake. I learned that club coaches needed licenses, so I decided to let others run the show. But as I watched from the sidelines over the years, I kept feeling the urge to coach again. My problem is I can’t help caring about kids. And I knew a former student of mine, Conner Bassett, who played for BYU and was willing to coach my daughter Camilla’s team. I decided to go along for the ride and learn as much from him as I could. It’s rekindled my love for celebrating the successes of each one of the kids on the team. I won’t pretend it isn’t especially gratifying to watch my own children progress in their athletic skills, but it is just as fulfilling to feel a kind of extended fatherly commitment to seeing young kids flourish, to find their talents, and to build a sense of unity as a team.
This is sounding all very romantic, I know. It obviously has its down sides: the angry parents, the abusive coaches, and the elitism of those “anointed” by coaches as stars. But it also does much of what the clichés have always said: it teaches kids how to work together, to have discipline, to believe in themselves, to live clean lives. I was not surprised to read a study years ago that indicated girl athletes, especially soccer players, tend to do better in school. My daughter Paige has always believed being on a team—and she was on a lot of them: soccer, basketball, track, cross country—helped her to work harder and more efficiently in school. Besides, there is something aesthetically pleasing about the seasons of soccer, especially now with the pangs of winter finally abated and the spring warmth on the back of the neck as one paces along the sidelines, hearing the chatter and cheering of the parents, watching the players give their all in learning an art that will forever entice but perhaps finally elude them. But what will they have become in the process of the pursuit? If nothing else, they will know the joys of health, vigor, activity. These joys don’t last, since the body doesn’t. But they are real and, as long as fortune allows, our privilege.
For the record, I have never believed in the notion of inborn genius, and I don’t think I believe in native athleticism either. Sure, everyone gets their ration of potential, but potential is really only as high as the heart’s desires are fierce and the self’s pleasures in process are real. The issue isn’t what you are but what you want. The great task of parenting and of teaching is to help the young find their passion and run with it.