It’s How You Play the Game

And shine, she did.  Seriously.  I have to take a minute here to do a little obnoxious mommy bragging – my apologies in advance……but I gotta say it.  Little sister is ridiculously talented in this sport.  I mean, like crazy good. This summer, we let her try things out at one of those British soccer camps.  This is not my first rodeo. Before I sign anyone up for something that involves a multiple month commitment, I want to be sure they’re in. Ain’t nobody got time or patience for the whining or complaining of a reluctant participant.  They outnumber us. So, we tried out the soccer camp, and she loved it.  Her coach at the camp was adorable (and had an accent to boot, sigh) and quite impressed with our little princess.  She won every game of Sharks and Minnows, thank you very much.  She just has this single-minded intensity of purpose with moving the ball from one end of the field to the other.  And she’s wicked fast, even dribbling.  When her season began and she met her new team, that skill carried right over.  Her whole thought process was, “You want me to put this ball into that goal?  No problem.”

So she did.  Quite consistently.  Her goal count at each game ranged from three to nine.  She just gets the ball, breaks away, and flies down the field.  It’s a blast to watch.  And precious, because she’s so small (we’re hanging solid at the 25th percentile on the growth chart).  We cheered and encouraged, hugged and high-fived. Her father was completely amazed.  He just kept saying, “the boys weren’t like this at all this early”.  True. She’s running circles around their younger endeavors (don’t tell them I said that).  Comments from parents of other teams range from fascination to amusement to (sometimes) a little irritation.  The game in which she scored nine goals, we beat the team we were playing 13 to 2.  Five of her nine goals were scored in the first four minutes of the last quarter…. She likely would have kept running up the score, but her coach pulled her out to “rest” – she was quite irritated by this, seeing as how she wasn’t actually tired.

The rest of her team was just as adorable.  As the season progressed and the girls got more comfortable with each other and the sport as a whole, they became quite a force to be reckoned with.  Emry’s speed and aggression soon had company, and we had an undefeated, forward-charging, in-your-face lineup and season.

Until our second-to-last game.

That game day started like all of our others.  Emry and I had our “How many goals are you going to score today?” chat on the way.  We listened to her get-pumped-up Game Day music in the car (her most-requested choices are Mr. Roboto by Styx, Bang Bang by Jesse J and Ariana Grande, and ABBA’s Money, Money, Money – she’s very eclectic, I know….it makes my heart sing).  Reading this, I realize I sound slightly psychotic and overly “sports mom”-ish, seeing as how my little angel is barely five years old.  Remember, she’s my third kid.  She has spent her life watching and listening to her older brothers and their teammates.  Plus, she thinks she’s 15.  So, there.

Back to The Game.  The whistle blew to start, and we began pretty much like all the other games.  This team had girls bigger than ours, as usual (almost every one of our players was petite, it was hilarious; Emry actually wasn’t the shortest one on the team).  No problem.  I was recording the game for Gregg (who had to be at football), and laughing because over all the cheering and chatter, one of the dads of the other team kept repeating, “Watch that little one there.  Yeah, that one.  Wait until she gets going.  She’s a bullet.  She’s just a bullet” (referring to Emry).  And she was.  The bullet took off on one of her break aways and scored within the first few minutes of stepping onto the turf.  We cheered and clapped as she smiled and cartwheeled her way back to her spot (this has also been her signature move throughout the season), preparing to go again (her personal goal number was seven for this game).  The whistle blew again, the girls ran and kicked and chased the ball.  Emry got a foot on it, kicked it away and prepped to take off.

She couldn’t.

I watched through the lens of the video camera as one of the opposing team members grabbed her by the collar and held on,  This was super effective, since the child was a good four inches taller than Em.

I put down my camera, clapping and calling out to her to shake it off and keep going.  She did, until the next play, when the same girl grabbed her, this time shaking her back and forth by the collar of her shirt.  When it happened a third time, Emry left the field in tears.  She was done.

My heart sank as I watched her coach walk her to the sideline and help her climb into his wife’s lap, where she curled up and wept.  I could see her tiny shoulders shaking from across the way as I jogged around to the player’s side.  As I gathered her in my arms, I was surprised at the intensity of her tears and her fear of the other girl.  She absolutely did not want to go back out and play any more.  By the time the half ended a few minutes later, we had two more players in tears.  The opposing coach and mother of the child finally got onto her about her behavior, but the damage had been done.  Our girls had lost their mojo.

The second half wasn’t even a game.  We convinced them to get back out there, but they couldn’t pull it together.  Every time that particular opponent got the ball, they all backed away and let her take it, all the way to the goal.  They just couldn’t bring themselves to get in front of her or challenge her in any way.  They were completely deflated, utterly undone.

It was so sad.
It was so surprising.
I mean, Emry fends off and/or reciprocates way worse attacks from her brothers on an almost hourly basis.  She never backs down from anyone, and can handle a take-down or battle over any object like a boss.  To be honest, she’s a little scary at times.
So, why on earth did this flatten her?  How come she couldn’t shake it off?

I’ve thought about that a lot, reflecting on what made this situation so intimidating and overwhelming in the mind of my spunky daughter and her teammates.  And I think the answer is twofold.

1) It was unexpected, and caught them totally off guard.
2) It was unfair.

They simply couldn’t reconcile the “cheating”-type behavior on a playing field that, up to that point, had been safe and fun and civil.  They didn’t know how to behave in response, perceiving that in a battle of aggressors, the smaller girls didn’t have a chance.  Plus, they get in trouble for being mean, so there’s no winning there.

And while I was frustrated by the events, and by Emry’s inability to blow it off and still play her game, my primary feeling was one of sadness.  Because, unfortunately, this is just the beginning.  This is a life lesson, as well as a sports lesson.  It’s one I wish she didn’t have to learn.

I wish she didn’t have to learn that being talented will sometimes make her a target.
I wish she didn’t have to learn that there will be people who, once they realize they can’t catch up to her, will try to drag her down.
I wish she didn’t have to learn that, intermittently, the person who cheats or pulls down or intimidates those around her may actually score the most goals and get the win – at least, in the short view.
I wish she didn’t have to learn that there are days when the game you love isn’t fun or fair.
I wish she didn’t have to learn that there are times in which safe arenas aren’t protected or just.
I wish she didn’t have to learn precisely how hard it is to do the right thing, no matter what anyone else is doing, or that being the bigger person stings more often than not.

I wish she didn’t have to learn these things…..but I desperately hope that she does.

I hope she learns these lessons quicker than I did, and with less denial.
I hope she learns that none of these things can break her, and that every time she gets back in the game she wins, no matter what the scoreboard says.
I hope she learns that her worth is in no way tied up with what others do or say or think.

I hope she learns that to shine brightly is a gift and a calling, and that no one can ever dim her light without her permission….and even then, she has the power to shrug off negativity and criticism whenever she decides to do so.

I hope we all can keep learning and living all of this.  Because if we can’t, if we allow a harsh and critical world to overwhelm and minimize and change us…..we won’t allow ourselves to live the way we’re meant to.  We’ll become cynical and insecure and unhappy, constantly seeking approval from the wrong sources as we allow fear of failure or judgement to keep us out of the race.  Where’s the freedom in that?  Not to mention fun…. Where’s the fun if you never get back in the game?  That’s not the point at all.  It’s definitely not how we’re supposed to live. Or what we were created to do.

One of my favorite verses is Hebrews 12:1 – “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”

My little soccer star didn’t like being shut down that day. She was not satisfied with her one goal only game. She came back the next week to score four, despite rain and really cold weather.
We talk about the unfortunate game often, and while she’s still not thrilled about the concept of ever facing that team again, she’s less fearful and more determined each time we discuss it.
She’s excited to play again in the spring.  They all are.

The next kiddo that grabs her uniform better watch out.  She won’t be taken down that easily again.

Solidarity, sisters.  It’s how you play the game that matters, and you’ve got to jump in to play.

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