How young is too young for real competition and being cut from a team? It is always hard to witness your child in pain but how do you know when to protect them and what bruises and heartaches are necessary parts of life? I think it gets easier to have a better gage when your second and third child come along however, there is a bit of a learning curve when it comes to your first. Not to say you become a perfect parent with each subsequent child and you make all the right decisions. I am sure there have been and will be some missteps with two and three. There is just something about that first child that makes every decision monumental because it is the first time you are encountering every experience.
As a former college athlete, (and I use the term college athlete ultra loosely) I have experienced some competition. Our coach trained us, he yelled at us, he worked us until we sometimes hyperventilated, (well maybe only I hyperventilated) and would get angry when we didn’t do what we were told. We lost a lot of games much to Coach’s dismay but not to anyone’s surprise. Despite our losing seasons, we still managed to get in the bus after a crushing game, fight over who would get the coveted front seat and sing songs from the soundtrack of Disney’s “Lion King”. This is what I knew of sports and competition. This is not at all what is going on with today’s young children.
In second grade, my son was asked to play on a travel soccer team. They needed some extra players and I thought “Why not? He is pretty good and it might be a good opportunity for him.” Neither my husband or I knew much about soccer. We literally had to google how to put on shin guards. There were no try-outs for this team and I did ask if he could be cut but was told that would not happen. My inexperience in the politics and competition of these travel sports put my son in a position to this day I wish I could take back.
Fast forward to the end of the season and we were getting the hint that a couple of kids would have to be cut and knew our son could easily be on that list. We didn’t know what to do...so we talked about what we could do until we couldn’t talk about it anymore and waited until the phone call came.
I sometimes wonder if the poor coach wished he got the father instead of the very pregnant, hormone infused, highly emotional mother. As soon as I heard his tone I knew my son had been the unfortunate soul who got the ax. He started by saying, and I believe him because I don’t think he was behind the cuts, “When I agreed to coach this team, I never wanted to break an 8 year old’s heart.” and without regard for his soft, heartfelt demeanor I said, “AND HIS PREGNANT MOTHER!”. Rest assured I was not trying to make the situation about myself. As a parent, you prefer to take the pain for your child. You’d take twice the pain to avoid their heartbreak. Here I was, helpless in what my sweet, sensitive boy was about to experience and I couldn’t help feeling responsible having agreed to let him play on this team. I sobbed to the coach. Sobbed not because I wanted him to change his decision but because this was the FIRST time this was happening to my FIRST child.
My husband and I went over how I would tell him. My husband wanted to break the news but I had to tell him because he’d be spending time with a friend who was on the team, at a birthday party, before my husband’s work day had ended. In fact, we were carpooling with that friend. As I delivered the blow, I tried with ever fiber of my being to remain calm so not to upset him more. As I told him about the coach’s phone call he withdrew and completely shut down. No tears, no emotion and he would not allow me to console him. While trying to hug him it felt more like I was pressing an ironing board up against my body than the warm cuddly baby that grew in my belly for almost ten months. He was so still and devoid of any emotion. The knot in my stomach grew as the vice on my heart tightened. This was more than just heartbreak, it was a devastating blow to a young child’s confidence.
The car ride to the birthday party could quite possibly be the longest fifteen minutes of my life. His friend got in the car and immediately blurted out “I heard you got cut” in the most clueless eight year old fashion behaving exactly as he should have for his age. Michael remained stoic and they chatted about the situation the entire ride. His little friend tried to be supportive and while I listened I again began sobbing. This time in silence, with sunglasses on, while driving in the pouring rain.
We arrived at the party and the host, a very good friend, could see through my sunglasses. She gasped and said, “is everything ok?” and I said “this is going to sound ridiculous but he got cut from the soccer team.” She was very gracious looking at me in the pouring rain, sobbing behind my sunglasses and I felt comfort knowing I was leaving him in good hands and distracted for the moment.
At first, he seemed no worse for the wear. Kids can seem to be very resilient. However, when the time came for him to try out for another team, the ugly head of rejection came crashing through like a wrecking ball. He did not want to try-out for anything. There was a lot coaxing and providing many opportunities for him to try again in safer situations so he could regain the confidence that was taken from him at too young and vulnerable of an age. Luckily, he found great success with basketball. He also learned the valuable lesson of getting back on the horse but in my opinion, that lesson could have waited a few years. Do I think everyone should get a medal? Absolutely not! I do think these extreme, competitive situations should be approached with care and caution for children who are very young. The politics and drive behind these parents and teams are often meeting the adult’s needs more than the child’s. Although each child is different, I doubt many kids are ready for that kind of stress and rejection in second grade. Do I have a magic number? No, but breaking an eight year old’s heart to better a second grade soccer team is not worth the havoc it wreaked on my son... and his pregnant mother.