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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Not Quite a Ball

We hoped she wouldn't take this trouncing to heart.
When my sports-obsessed husband prematurely introduced our older daughter to soccer several years ago, she declared, “I don’t really like it,” after her first practice.

Despite Georgia’s reluctance, Jeff encouraged her each Saturday to hit the field, where she clung to the background, her shin guards sagging, as other girls darted after balls.

So we were stunned when Georgia, now in first grade, announced that she wanted to try soccer again this fall and even more delighted in recent weeks by how much she seemed to be enjoying the experience—that is, until last Saturday, her first game.

The weather was perfect, a shimmering autumn day, the blue sky beaming down on the verdant field, just cool enough for a sweatshirt but not too cold for those who forgot one. But as my husband and I sat on our haunches trying to root for our older daughter, our other two children kept knocking balls across our picnic blanket, upsetting water bottles and squishing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

“Will you throw me a high ball?” Jane, 3, repeatedly asked.
“I want you to kick with me,” Griffin, 6, kept nagging Jeff.

In addition to these distractions, 15 minutes into the contest the Orioles were unfortunately already trouncing our daughter’s team, the Pirates, who were not quite living up to the ferocity of their name. And as I fended off her siblings’ demands, I worried that Georgia’s newfound enthusiasm for soccer would quickly flag with this first, and potentially epic, defeat.

“Is that girl on their team even our age?” Georgia asked, pointing to a very tall No. 13 on the Orioles, during the first water break. The girl did look freakishly large, as if bred on a steady diet of organic spinach and fortified milk.

“I think she’s your age,” my husband said.
“Well,” Georgia retorted, “then why is she so tall?”

When our daughter chugged back onto the field, somewhat more sluggishly than she did at the start of the game, my husband began his nervous-dad-sidelined-coach chatter. “Get the ball, get the ball!” Jeff kept muttering, trying not to yell out like some of the other fathers but not quite able to contain himself. “There’s a lack of organization here,” he complained during a lull in the game, after the Orioles scored their fifth or sixth goal.

At this point, Jane took a break from her generalized trampling to request another snack. “Can someone move that bag?” she asked, lying down on top of the pretzels. Then she gazed up at the sky, dropped a half-eaten apple on the grass and shouted, “Go Georgia!” into the air.

Jane’s cheers did little to boost her sister’s morale. During halftime, the score now at least 8-zip, Georgia sat deflated on her ball, sucking her water bottle, her chin in her hand. “Are you sure that girl is our age?” she asked again.

A beefy preteen in high tops and Jams, who had been playing hoops on a nearby court, took advantage of the pause on the soccer field to whale balls at two of Georgia’s teammates standing terrified in goal. “Maybe you should shoot on me,” one of the girls’ fathers stepped in and said.

When the game recommenced, No. 13 sped down the field and scored for the Orioles, again. Wild cheers erupted from the opposing side.

“Let’s go, Pirates!” I shouted, my ineffectual encouragement floating away on the breeze.

Finally, however, Georgia took possession and dribbled toward the Orioles’ goal until the ball rolled too far ahead of her scampering feet. She regained control, only to start dribbling back the wrong direction, toward her own team’s goal. “The other way, the other way!” Georgia’s coach cried.

I saw our daughter’s face scrunch into a grimace and was wondering how I would persuade her back onto the field next weekend, when Georgia suddenly clonked heads with an opposing player.

“Look, Georgia, you knocked the other girl out,” Jeff said, pointing at our daughter’s victim, lying on her mother’s lap, an ice bag on her forehead.
“I think she’s just making too big a deal out of it,” Georgia replied, after drying her own tears and, to my amazement, trotting back onto the field.

“There she goes,” my husband started up with his nervous muttering again. “Get through, get through!”

But Georgia never did. And after the tenth goal, I stopped counting, worried that our daughter would be so disenchanted that she’d want nothing more to do with the sport.

“Well, I thought you guys did a great job, even though they scored all the points,” I said in a last-ditch effort to retrieve the experience from disaster, as Georgia took a post-game swing on the monkey bars. “The important thing is that you didn’t give up.”
“Why would we give up?” Georgia stunned me by asking. “I don’t even think that’s allowed.”
“That's true, Georgia. That's true,” I said, mystified, yet again, by the logic and resilience of youth.