Sunday Ryan had his first soccer game. It was only the second Sunday of soccer, and it started horribly. You see, Ryan doesn’t understand the game at all. He doesn’t know the positions, and in the first ‘practice’ they only went through some skill exercises. He was there with other first graders, plus second and third graders who had played before. They started him at forward, and when the game began he just stood there, unsure what to do as his teammate ran into the other side’s defense with no one to pass the ball to. Some other kids were also unclear on what was happening, but Ryan’s lack of movement was obvious, so everyone started yelling, “Ryan, go help him, Ryan, go to the ball.” It must have sounded as if we were mad at him because he suddenly looked forlorn, and went to the edge of the field, crying. He was under pressure, but didn’t know what he was supposed to do.
My first reaction was to head over there, but I waited awhile and let the coaches — high school soccer players — talk to him. I thought it was important to let him deal and talk with them awhile. Sometimes that works best. In this case, though, it was clear it wasn’t working, so I came over. I took Ryan aside, and he told me in no uncertain terms that soccer was over for him. He wanted to go home, he hates the game, and he was stubborn about it. I talked with him awhile, and finally got him to agree to at least stay and watch the game. I told the coaches to use their best judgment on getting him back in, and explained he didn’t understand what was happening and was overwhelmed. I apologized for not preparing him better, and they assured me that a lot of kids were in the same boat — Ryan’s game just got off to a rough start.
I went back, chatted with other parents, and watched as Ryan sat there, alone and quiet at first, but then he started to talk to the other kids, who were trying to be helpful. I saw the coaches quietly explain things to him, allowing him to take it in without pressure. In the third quarter (they play four ten minute quarters), Ryan got on a green jersey to play goalie. Apparently, that wasn’t as intimidating, he more easily understood his task. Luckily his team was better (they won 1-0, but outplayed the other team the whole game), so Ryan didn’t get much action. At one point though the other team penetrated the defenses and got a shot off. Ryan was standing close to the goal and caught it — with the ball almost going over the line. I was very relieved it hadn’t, since I didn’t want him to think he had a save only to be told it wasn’t! He had to get some confidence! He then threw the ball down in front of him, which was a mistake.
Luckily, the girl on the other team who was standing by the ball was in Ryan’s boat — she wasn’t sure what to do. A hot shot third grader would have zipped it into the goal, but the other team’s coaches had to start yelling to the girl to shoot. She did, but Ryan realized what was happening by then, and he easily stopped the shot. Now, his confidence was back. Then in the forth quarter he was out there playing halfback.
Now, Ryan is naturally athletic, big and fast for his age. He was able, despite his lack of soccer skills, to get the ball, take it down field a time or two, and be in the middle of things. He was having fun, giving me the thumbs up signal as I (and friends who had witnessed his ordeal) sent out positive reinforcement. After the game, he yelled “I love soccer!” I thanked the coaches, and felt exhilarated. The game started out so bad, but ended on such a high note.
I think the way this played itself out is a microcosm of what happens in life all the time. That kind of being in a new situation, in front of people, with pressure, and not knowing what to do is immensely difficult for anyone. I felt so sorry for him.
But I didn’t want to swoop in and intervene right away, something like this also creates the opportunity for learning. I think it was right to first give the coaches a chance, and then not to linger after I did intervene and tried to give him confidence. I just let him know it was alright if he made mistakes, or even if he didn’t play at all. I made it clear I’d really be happy if he at least tried, that trying was important. I then left it to the coaches.
Confidence is important. How often in life is it so that our own anxieties and worries are due to lack of confidence that we can control a situation? Instead of crying and getting reassurance and patience, we adults remain stoic, push ourselves into action, and often make mistakes because deep down we think we can’t do it. Or sometimes we simply find an excuse to back down. But the only way to acquire confidence is to take small steps, get encouragement and support, and then have results. We can do that on our own, but it’s easier with the helps of others, whether one is six years old or 66.
Fear is the trap. Ryan’s problem was fear — fear that he was going to fail and look bad, that he couldn’t do this. That fear caused him to be ready to give up. Once I had a student who was afraid of giving public presentations, and had managed to get out of them in high school by claiming she’d have anxiety attacks. I told her fine — as long as she got a note from our learning assistance center that she had a learning disability and needed an alternative assignment, she could do something else. Of course, she didn’t really have a disability, she was just scared. She wanted me to call her parents, or even her high school guidance counselor. I didn’t give in. I called on her in class and tried to give her confidence that she could speak up effectively, and told her that even if she failed in her presentation, she’d get considerable credit for just trying. She ultimately gave the complete 10 minute talk, shaking the whole time, constantly sipping water due to her dry mouth, but making it through. By her senior year, she gave superb and confident presentations.
To me, his hour and a half soccer experience was a microcosm of the kinds of struggles we humans face every day. Life, it seems to me, would be so much easier if, with understanding, we supported each other, worked together to build confidence, overcome fear, and solve problems.