One Sock, No Cleats with David Jennings

I grew up in the ’60s when soccer was first trying to push into the schools and playgrounds of the United States. But soccer was a tough sell, in part because baseball was flourishing, but largely because shin-guards were yet to become standard equipment.

Before soccer, I had no clue my shins were capable of registering pain commensurate with blows to other, more obvious areas warranting protection. I became a sort of soccer bigot.

I loved baseball over all things and believed soccer’s popularity with kids was attributable to its unremarkable use of gravity: run at a ball, already on the ground, kick it, ball returns to ground. Repeat.

Other, nobler sports were conceived to defy gravity: throw it hard, hit it far, bounce it fast, shoot it straight, but, whatever you do, don’t kick it and never drop it on the ground. I never played an organized game of soccer and never read a soccer score in the sports page. I could only imagine how drunk you would have to get to enjoy an adult soccer game with no score.

When my boys started playing soccer, I was forced to face my soccer prejudices. Worse yet, I got sucked into coaching soccer. Last year I was wheedled into being a head coach. This year I have a boys U-13 combination team, “Fa Caldo Vashon.”

I’m far from becoming a soccer expert, but after coaching for a couple of years, I have to give soccer its due. Soccer’s success goes beyond capitalizing on Newton’s theory. Soccer does things right.

First, soccer keeps practices fun. Fun is paramount, but in a very sneaky way.

Soccer practices incorporate no drills; in soccer, we play “games,” and we are instructed to take care to call them “games.” Coaches are discouraged from using words that imply work, effort or difficulty. These “games” for practice have been perfected by experts to teach soccer skills and strategy and improve stamina.

Kids play against each other in fun competitions, and nobody is allowed to stand around watching others for long.

Soccer “games” offer fun rewards and praise for success (you win!; you’ve got the high score; you’re the best!).

Soccer even punishes with “fun” penalties: goof up or fail to pay attention to the coach, and you must do “donkey kicks” while braying, or do jumping jacks while saying something wacky like, “I’m a star, I’m a star,” for each jack.

Practice “games” are given fun names, such as “Sharks and Minnows,” “Keeper of the Gold” and “Lightning.” To guard against boredom, “games” are not supposed to last for more than 10 minutes. In sum, a good soccer practice is a brilliantly orchestrated scheme, designed to fool the participants into busting their keisters in grueling drills.

The second thing soccer does right is that it trains its coaches better than any other sport.

First they fool you into coaching by telling you that it doesn’t matter that you’ve never played soccer before, or even that you know nothing about the game.

“Come on and try; you’ll be fine. We’ll help you out. It will be fun.”

You see the Machiavellian pattern; they lull adults just like they lull the kids.

Once in, they lure you into training. “It’s fun. A great little workout. You’ll enjoy it.”

I’ve been to coaching clinics in other sports, but no other sport was able to dupe me into spending 16 hours in cleats and shorts playing “games” for a weekend.

At a recent “fun” coaches’ clinic, I noticed that most of the other coaches had obviously played soccer before and were good at it. I had not and was not. I didn’t like being the fat, slow, unskilled kid in my group. I bristled when I heard cloying praise, “Good job, David. Now you’re getting it. That’s the way to do it.”

(There is actually a published list on a soccer Web site of 84 different ways to say “good job.”) I knew I was being conned, but somehow it still worked on me. It was the perfect analogy to the strategy they were teaching: Fool your kids into working hard, just as we fooled you into surrendering a precious weekend so you could pull a hamstring and really feel your age.

The third thing soccer does right is that it earns loyalty from kids by never demanding it. Some sports get jealous if their athletes consider dabbling in other sports, and jealousy’s manifestation rarely achieves jealousy’s goal. Soccer doesn’t seem to mind if its kids experiment with other sports.

Don’t misunderstand; soccer makes no effort to share its players — the soccer season for advanced players leaves kids with six hours of free time on one weekend in December. Still, I have never heard a soccer coach say anything bad about other sports.

On our Island, soccer treats its players the way a caring mother might nurture her children: “Go on, have some fun, live a little — I’ll always be here for you.”

Soccer faithfully waits for a player’s return, happy to take them back and careful to avoid negative comments about their absence. A good soccer coach acknowledges how football seems to have made one player a better defender, or how basketball helped another player better understand game strategy. Cunningly beneficent, these soccer people.

It would be a huge mistake to conclude that all this hugging and pampering makes soccer mere frippery compared to other sports. In fact, if you are looking for a non-competitive sport for your son or daughter, look elsewhere.

The intensity of soccer is surpassed only by the madness of its spectators. Gentle brown rice hippies turn into arm-waiving lunatics. Soccer moms punctuate disagreements with demands of anatomical impossibilities. Cockfighting fans would be shocked at the explosions of emotion at close soccer matches between children.

Our kids’ games are tame compared to professional soccer. If the angry Indiana Pacers had charged a stand of European soccer fans instead of an NBA basketball bleacher a few years ago, coroners would still be trying to collect pieces for the autopsy. In 1969, soccer matches between Honduras and El Salvador led to undeclared war, with one correspondent reporting 6,000 dead, 12,000 wounded, and 50,000 deprived of their homes and fields. Entire villages were destroyed.

So if somebody like my former self, an unreformed soccer bigot, dares suggest to you that soccer’s a sport for babies, ask the following: When was the last time a war broke out after a NASCAR race or a football game?

— David Jennings is a soccer dad, soccer coach and former soccer bigot.

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