For the past few soccer seasons, my youngest son has been on his older brother’s soccer team, playing above his age. Since I’m one of the coaches, this may sound like favoritism, but it’s not. Skills-wise, he’s got better ball control than most of the kids at this level. His passes aren’t as strong, of course, and he’s much smaller than the other kids, but he makes up for that with hustle.
He was excited to be playing with the bigger kids, has always liked the challenge.
The size difference, however, was a problem. He would get knocked flying two or three times per game, and the referee rarely blew the whistle. I got myself in trouble more than a few times, arguing with the refs, but it didn’t make a difference. They apparently thought he was faking his falls.
At first, my son got upset at the ref for not calling fouls.
We talked through that, and he understood that the ref was the ref, and there’s no use arguing.
There was also the problem of the actual pain. The hits were hard, and more than once the ref had to stop the game so he could come off the field.
He and I talked about that, too, especially when I realized that other players were trying to knock him out of the game. Twelve-year olds hate getting beaten by someone who’s a foot shorter than they are.
Once he realized that, the little guy started to view the fouls as a badge of honor. They couldn’t beat him any other way, so they were trying to foul him. He’d bounce up immediately after getting slammed, red-faced and gasping to hold back the tears, but determined to play even harder.
The approach worked phenomenally well. It both drive his opponents crazy, and elevated his teammates’ play. Also, the refs finally started protecting him a little bit more. I don’t know if it was respect or pity, but they came to the conclusion that he wasn’t faking his falls.
Last week, though, he spoke to me about the upcoming season.
“It’s not that I don’t like to play,” he said. “And I don’t want to let the team down. . . but it hurts. I mean, every game hurts. Can I go back to my own age bracket?”
“Of course,” I said. “And you’re not letting anyone down.”
All this time I thought he was learning lessons. I was the one who should have been learning.