Olivia’s Story: Helping Your Kids Let The Game Go

 “We’re all told when we can no longer play the game. For some, it’s 18. Others at 40. But we’re all told.”

 – Paraphrased from Moneyball

About Liv & The Perils of Being Half-Right

After 90 minutes playing hard fought soccer in a monsoon and standing on her head making save after save against a superior team, a teary-eyed Senior is the last one to cross the field suffering from more than the end of her High School career. It was the last competitive soccer game she’d ever play.

A club player since 9 and on a highly respected regional club team in the months (and years) leading to Senior year, Liv decided to pass on her college soccer offers. After multiple visits, she just didn’t want to go to a smaller school even if that meant leaving soccer behind. 6AM lift, road trips to nowhere towns, limited academic catalogs and cities to live in that weren’t much more than the size of a college campus that was smaller than her high school didn’t seem to justify leaving behind an opportunity for new interests. Sorority life, working at a major university hospital, doing big-time research and the full experience of attending a big SEC school had long left her starry-eyed and many of those things would have been sacrifices to continue with the game. Or, said another way, the love of the game, the grind and the soccer work was far less than the promise of what was next.

I was very proud of her decision. Still am. I thought I had guided her well. In retrospect, I was at most half right in my guidance but being half right is still the same as being wrong. And I was.

She struggled in the months ahead. There was no GK training, no team practice or reason to play club her last semester with no intentions of college play. A big piece of who she was and always knew herself as was suddenly amputated and she was months from the start of her next chapter. Seeing the eight kids on her club team have their signing days with all the associated fanfare was tough. She was gleefully happy for them, but still, a reminder of something she moved on from that meant so much. Leaving the game hit her harder than I could have imagined and found its way into self-esteem and even a depression that clouded what should have been a more exuberant start to college.

She never regretted moving on, but she was just a kid and didn’t have the tools to deal with letting something this important go. She didn’t have the tools. That’s my job and I failed. That was a foul on me. A big one.

Before we continue…

I totally get their are multiple avenues to continue playing the game into your 60s if you like. I’m not talking about that. Liv understands she can play forever, but Sunday rec games are not remotely the same thing as the central life-focus of high level club and college soccer. In fact, she was offered a chance to play on the college club team. It felt like taking 8 steps backwards and she was playing on a bad high school team. She also played with a “semi-pro” women’s team for a few games, an equally awful experience for her. You can play soccer forever, but seeing yourself as more than a soccer player is essential to growing up. Car payments will need to be paid at some point in their lives and playing Sunday rec soccer or with old pros years from now doesn’t do that . Liv saw more for herself, she just didn’t know how to not make soccer such a central part of her life.

This is hard and no one talks about it.

No one wants to think about how such an important part of your kid’s life (and your life) ends. But whether you’ve thought about it or not, the day is coming. Hopefully, you’ve started to embrace that your child isn’t going to make millions in the club and country ranks. Here’s the deal though: it ends for them too. It ended for Pele and Rooney and Michael Jordan and Derek Jeter and the U15 club superstar with P5 commitment in hand that somehow decided not to even finish high school soccer much less play in college.

As awesome as this journey is, it’ll end and athletes far and wide from 12 years old to hall of fame pros struggle with letting it go. Is your child prepared for that day? Do they see a future for themselves that doesn’t involve the ball? Could they struggle mentally and emotionally with their own identity without playing the game? Big question there because many—MANY—do. As uncomfortable, unsatisfying, and downright unpleasant as the thought may be, it’s your job to help them prepare for that day long before it arrives. Here are a few points to consider that might help you avoid my mistakes.

Do they REALLY want to keep going?

Let’s do high school kids first. Parents need to examine their kid’s ambitions deeply before they ever challenge their kids on their vision for the future, which means parents need to be honest with themselves. Kids will often say they want to go to the next level regardless of whether they do or not. In some cases, they can’t imagine a life without it, can’t imagine anything else to say or say what they think you, their friends or others want them to say.

Ask yourself a few questions first.

  • Does your child love the work as much if not more than the result? Do they love games but dread practice?
  • Is running and conditioning feared?
  • Do they give 150% all the time at practices and games or do they ‘take plays off’ frequently?
  • Do they take personal ownership of their training and development, or do you do all that for them?
  • Do they do all the college recruiting outreach, or do you do part of it? Do they want to be a college player as much as you want them to be?
  • Are you 100% confident they’re ready academically for the challenges of college? Because if the books aren’t a strength going in and soccer isn’t a supreme passion above all, that’s a bad cocktail for a tough Freshman year.

If your player is over 15 (over 16 for sure), it’s time to get very real about all this and that starts with your ability as a parent to be honest with yourself about what is really happening. Take the rose-colored glasses off. If your child seems to complain about practice more, enjoys it less, fusses about conditioning or weight training, tires of the team dynamics or seems to dislike almost all coaching—those are ENORMOUS warning signs. College soccer is a job and it’s harder than anything they’ve done by a mile. Dedication and the desire to sacrifice for the game can never be in doubt. Ever.

The college kid story is especially sad and extremely common. So many college players are majoring in the easiest thing possible just to make the most of where they are, instead of where they are headed. Rising Juniors with no idea what they could possibly be doing after graduation is not uncommon in all walks of college life but seems to be a particular plague with college athletes. If it feels like many of these kids can’t see their future outside of being a player, you’re correct. They can’t.  Even if your kid is a college star—it’s ending very, very soon. While you’d hope kids had become more serious about this far before college started, most don’t. They’re kids and left to their own devices will miss the very important step of visualizing their future, planning, and working for it. You can help them. Please do so.

I’ve seen far too many recent and about-to-be college graduates really struggling with the next chapter in their life when soccer should help them be more prepared than anyone else.

Talk to them.

They see how much you’ve done for them to support this crazy life. They see how much you enjoy watching them play. They even see how you enjoy the parent side of these activities. So, don’t let them feel like moving on from soccer could in any way let you down. I should have spent more time with my girls when they were younger talking about what they can be in this life other than a Goalkeeper or Holding Mid. I should have spent more time investing in and exploring interests and activities with them other than soccer. I should have been more deliberate about saying, even at the heights of their love for the game, that one day this ends and to enjoy every step. I should have ensured that both had a vivid and intentional purpose and vision for themselves outside of the game. I should have ensured that the game was an important part of what they did, but never defined who they are. Do better than me.

I’m fortunate my girls were strong enough to work through much of this on their own, but it would have been far easier had I been thinking through this even passively when they were 14 and 15. Just know that all these things can be accomplished first by simply talking to them. Not about why their outside back continues to force the ball forward for no reason, but about why they love non-soccer things the way they do. Then I could have introduced them to people that loved what they love and built a life in it. Man, the things I should have done, but just talk to them and be intentional about life outside the game. It goes a long way.

Pivot to the future.

Reminding kids that fairy tale endings most frequently happen in fairy tales–not real life–is important. Senioritis hits hard and leaves kids anything but their normal selves as they end high school or college. Great jobs worked for many years often leave the employee feeling dissatisfied, unappreciated, and all-too eager to move on. Ask any medical professional about death.  People rarely just slip away in their sleep. It ain’t pretty. Sports isn’t any different most of the time. John Elway got to retire immediately following his Super Bowl victory, but for most it happens when you get cut or the next level is a bridge too far. I’ve often told my children that most good things end badly.  It’s God’s way of pushing us into what’s next without longing for the past or what might have been. Use that technique if you like, it’s a great way to help them pivot to new things or an obvious path forward they may not want to acknowledge. I stole it and it has served me well I just wish I deployed it a little sooner by using the experiences of other, older kids to help prepare them.

Recognize the last chapter before it’s too late.

Only one of the eight players from Olivia’s team that committed finished playing college soccer as a senior. 6 of the 8 quit by their sophomore year. My youngest is a college player and was on an amazing club team with 13 college commits. Four had surrendered soccer by Christmas of their freshman year. 4 were in the transfer portal before their junior year. 2 quit college altogether. My youngest daughter’s college team had 7 seniors graduate this December – 1 had a job. 2 had gained admission to grad school. The others are still exploring what’s next. College soccer signing day isn’t a finish line folks, it’s a starting gun. College graduation marks a transition into real life and rent payments will soon be due. And again, notice how many of the best things end ugly.

Wouldn’t it be better if they were more prepared for their last soccer chapter, instead of just going forward until the game slams the book closed on their fingers? That’s the question I leave you with and ask you to evaluate your role in helping them do that as much as possible.

By the way, Olivia is a happy 21-year-old, just got accepted to PA school, has research published with findings commercialized and will graduate Summa Cum Laude in a few months. Turns out the values and characteristics that make you good at the kid’s game can make you good at other things too.

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