MatchDay Memory–Legacy of Youth Soccer

My mom called me on my birthday.  After we got through the required set of questions with the requisite monosyllabic answers, she said, “Do you know that next month is the ten year anniversary of your Celtics winning the State Championship?”  At first I thought she meant the Boston Celtics and was going to criticize her saying “State” when she should have said “World”, but then I realized that she meant the Celtics youth soccer team I played on.  I actually hadn’t remembered but she was probably right. She told me she had been looking through the picture album and had come across an old team photo and was thinking about those times.

A bunch of eleven year old kids won the Kentucky State Championship, yet this feat was overshadowed, not by the clouds and intermittent rain, but by the fact that it was a hollow victory for me personally.  That championship was the greatest award I had ever attained, and for winning the tournament, we got a really small trophy.  I mean we won the State Championship for the love of God.  Give us something to remember it by, not some four inch trophy made of plastic. But back to my personal pain.  When looking back at the flow chart of my life, it was the best moment of my childhood and could have been the highest point amongst all the ups and downs, yet really it was just another in a list of failures. 

This moment was not accompanied by glowing remembrances because I got yanked for one play.  My team was winning 3-2, and, at the end of the game, the other team was awarded a penalty kick.  I was thinking, fuck, well probably not fuck but shoot or something, how am I going to stop this?  As it turned out, my coach sends one of the field players in to play goalie for the PK.  So I stood on the edge of the penalty area—shocked, numb, mildly embarrassed—as my teammate stopped the kick.  I went back in goal and a couple of minutes later, the final whistle blew.  We won the game and the championship, and I went home scarred for life.  Small price to pay for a piece of crap trophy.

Those words were written during my journaling phase, a time in my early 20’s where I made entries several times a week, eventually filling several notebooks with thoughts and ideas and comments about the world I lived in. Over time I even put together a short story, but that’s for another day.

Recently I have started going to therapy in an attempt to reclaim my life.  After a couple of sessions, I was told I have self-esteem issues. I responded, No I don’t, but looking back through my life, I realized that I do.  One of my homework assignments was to put together a life history, and I come back to that soccer field in Kentucky a lot.

I could have responded to the moment in a number of ways.  I could have used it as motivation to become a better goalkeeper.  I could have acknowledged that a teammate had a better chance to save it.  I could have filed it away to use as a stick to beat myself up with.  I think it’s clear which option I chose.

From a coaching perspective I can understand the decision to replace me.  In a results based occupation, coaches have to put their teams in the best chance to succeed.  Even though I had played goalkeeper for almost every minute of every game that season, the coach went in another direction and it paid off.  Bully for him.  It took me 20 years, including being a coach, to arrive at that point of view.

In trying to unpack my life, I have isolated this moment as one of the contributors to my low self-esteem.  I don’t blame my coach, not his fault to be sure, and this is an event, along with others, that I need to work through, and I only have just begun the process.  I didn’t really have the tools in the 11 year toolbox to react well to that moment.  Turns out I was missing several instruments in the healthy psychological toolbox.  In the end, my team won.  Maybe I should have quit my bitching and acknowledged that the player who replaced me was probably a better athlete.

But another thought I had was—Why do we subject kids to this?  Why are kids playing for state titles at 11 and 12 years old?  That seems awfully young for that sort of pressure.  Is this life practice? Or is this the adults trying to live vicariously through the players?  Or is it the adults trying to provide something to other adults, forgetting the kids involved?  Then again, the participants at the National Spelling Bee are relatively young and it could be argued that the demands they face are much greater.

I don’t pretend to have answers about the American youth soccer system—participation, scoring, pay to play, motivation, and so on.  Currently I’m more concerned with questions of a more personal nature, one of which is, why wasn’t Glasgow Celtic FC not in my soccer team portfolio?  Seems like that would have been a natural fit but didn’t quite happen.

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