When asked what ‘Jonny’ the 5-year-old first-time soccer player liked about his first game he said, “Goals get girls!” Without even looking at her husband, Jonny’s Mom closed-first punched him in the arm, grabbed Jonny’s hand, and marched him to the car where better life lessons were about to be taught. Dad was tried and convicted without even a look in his direction. And let’s be honest, Mom was probably right about the source Jonny’s remark. While inappropriate on more levels than I can describe, Dad and Jonny’s objectives made me laugh out loud and Mom’s reaction to the whole thing reassured me that Jonny would not be in prison one day.
Despite doing pretty well, little ‘Gracie’ ran over to her Mom after her first game and said she didn’t want to play anymore. When Mom inquired as to why this conclusion had arrived so fast, Gracie simply said that she couldn’t understand why her head was so wet and it felt funny. Her Mom explained that sweat isn’t a reason to quit anything. Most of the time it’s a reason to do it more. Way to go Mom.
From these stories to the “You can’t pee on the soccer field” shriek from an exasperated coach, you gotta love youth soccer stories.
When your kids are little, it can be hard to be deliberate and intentional about what you want them to take from their first experiences. You’re tired and beyond that, most of the time as a young parent you simply don’t know what you don’t know. We rely on our instincts and what we remember to solve for this wonderful journey into the unknown—as though no one has ever done this before.
So listen, take this under advisement from a guy that messed this up. These are some things you want the little ones to take from their first soccer experiences:
- Physical activity is fun. Being outside, playing, sweating, trying their best, and smiling while they do it is something most of us adults have forgotten how to do. Wouldn’t it be great if your 3, 4, or 5 year old could get that hard-wired into themselves early?
- Making new friends. Early soccer experiences are often the first experiences (outside of preschool) many kids have at really putting themselves out there with a group of other kids. The game is a great opportunity to interact with more kids in a different setting and begin losing shyness or an overly bold personality or whatever their social thing is. These limited engagements can help kids adapt better socially earlier while offering good supervision.
- Competition is good. Scoring and winning couldn’t matter less. I CANNOT BELIEVE I TYPED THAT. But, for now, at least, it’s true. Saying that, this early exposure to sports can help them understand the foundation of competition—having the courage to try in spite of or without fear. It’s OK to encourage them to “get in there” and try hard, but always be positive and encouraging.
- Having fans is cool. These kids will remember the first time they saw you cheer for them. Start cheering now, be outward, loud, and even a little silly by adult standards doing it. And then when you get the hang of it, never, ever stop.
- Quitting is not OK. If your child simply didn’t enjoy soccer after the first season, there is a universe of alternatives waiting. But if they quit because it’s hard, or feel uneasy, or can’t explain why their forehead has moisture on it—that’s a parent problem. After the season if they want to try something else—no problem. But if they want to quit after 3 practices—Ummm, no. Gotta get this lesson in early even if it’s a hard one.
- Intro to team. The best way to teach the first experience of a team is to let them see you cheer for ALL the kids on the team. Ask them to help a teammate tie shoes, retrieve their ball for them, help them up. You know, serve them. Those two little activities will do more than any trophy ever could at this age.
- Soccer is fun and things are happy when they do it. Make gameday a real family event. Make practices silly and if not coaching, get there early or stay a little late and kick the ball around with them while making them laugh. I couldn’t tell you how one single rec game ended from either of my two girls, but I can see their faces chasing me after a practice one Autumn night so clearly, I can touch their hair bows. Good God do I miss that.
One ask: please don’t overcoach from the sidelines. They’re babies and a little of that is OK and needed. But if you fashion yourself to be Ted Lasso—volunteer to be the coach. Your league needs the help. And NEVER be critical or overly nuts about a missed kick or goal or a kid that struggles more than yours. Yeah so, I did some of that. I’m that guy. That stupid, stupid guy.
At the end of the day, if they think playing was fun, are excited to go to practices and games and they’ve learned a few of the things above, congratulations. You’ve won the First Kicks World Cup of Parenting.