On Being a Good Sport

Today’s soccer lesson really started last night.

“I don’t WAN’ to go ta sawkka tomowwow,” with a little chin-quiver.

I thought she had rallied by bedtime, when she announced, from beneath her princess canopy,

“Tomowwow I yam goin’ to take da ball AWAY fwom dat tall girl.”

But the morning did not begin well. She overslept and wasn’t hungry for breakfast. She was cold. She didn’t want a sweater. And so forth. And so on.

We barely made it to the car.

Then, as we waited in the garage for DH to join us, he opened the door and growled,

“You’re on your own. We have a broken water pipe. The basement’s flooded.” THUD went the door, and away went DH.

“I don’t WAN’ to go ta sawkka,” He’en writhed in her carseat.  She probably thought a basement flood sounded a lot more exciting.

Truth, I did also by that time.

But we had a deal: she had begged and pestered for soccer, so she must attend at least three of the five lessons. I reminded her of the deal, and off we went.

She grumped and fussed in the car.

She dragged and scuffed into the school gym.

She drooped and hid behind me during warm-ups.

But! After securing my ironclad promise to participate during the parent-participation portion of the lesson, she seemed to rally.

As the children began their first drills, I popped open my reading app with a sigh of relief.

Too soon. At the sound of a sustained wail, I look up to see He’en flat-out on the floor. She apparently collided with somebody during the Red Light.

I pause a moment to see if this is standard He’en-drama or something more meaningful, but the other kids have cleared the floor and now I will look like a real wanker if I just let my kid lie there.

Plus, another little girl is in tears, apparently being the empathetic type, and is running to He’en to comfort her.

So now we have sobbing kids littering the field. The lesson is at a standstill.

The other mom scoops up her empathetic child and carries her off the field. So I scoop up He’en and carry her out of the gym. Her hot tears seep into my neck.

Outside the gym, we take deep breaths.

“Are you hurt, honey?”

“My fin-gah,” she gasps between sobs. I covertly peer at her finger and it indeed is very red and angry-looking.

Don’t be broken, finger.

“Ok, let’s walk outside and look at the trees and take some deep breaths of the cool air. We will find a rock to sit on, and I will look at your finger.”

Nods and sobs.

“Now, put your hands out like this. Can you spread your fingers apart? Can you make a fist?”

To great my relief, she does all of that, albeit gingerly.

“Ok, let me touch your finger.”

She allows that too and I carefully manipulate the suspect digit.

Thank God, not a broken finger.

“Did you get the wind knocked out of you when you fell?”

She doesn’t know.

I tell her about how it feels to get the wind knocked out of you. She almost giggles at the goofy noise I make. She almost looks sane again.

“So let’s go back in there.”

Flinch. Quiver. “I don’t WANT to play sawkkah. I want to go HOME.”

Well, heck. I don’t want my kid to be a quitter. On the other hand, the odds of having a good lesson after this are nearly nil. On the third hand, she has to learn to power through a bad day.

I think and think. A Mama earns the big bucks by deciding where to push and where to concede.

“You don’t have to play, but I want us both to watch. You can sit in my lap if you want.”

She consents to that, and we trail back into the gym. Soon He’en tugs at my arm and whispers, “Okay. I wan’ to play again. But only if you come WIF’ me.”


The next exercise is parent-participation: Clock Soccer. Parents stand in a circle, facing each other. Each kid runs around the circle and stops behind their parent. After a couple dry runs, the children do it with soccer balls.

He’en does not run the first time. She is afraid of falling, she says. She huddles behind me with her face buried in the back of my shirt.

On the second circle, she listlessly trots around, then comes back and attaches herself to my pants pocket.

I bat her away in time for a third circle. Sulking over being pried loose, she refuses to participate.

On the fourth circle, I make her stand with the other parents, and I dribble a ball around the circle, trying not to knock over any little kids.

On the final circle, He’en dribbles the ball four steps and then returns to hanging on my pockets. Again, I detach her, making me her most unfavorite person.

Clock Soccer, mercifully, draws to a close.

The next drill is one-on-one.

He’en has been dreading this for two weeks. In her very first lesson, a taller, stronger girl scored three goals on her in quick and fierce succession.

He’en still is not over the indignity.

“I ohn-wee [only] want to play if I can be da Bwankos,” she informs me. Then she trots up to her coach and asks if she can have one of the orange jerseys. (I sneak back to the sidelines.)

The coach puts off her request until the end of the pairings. But, at that time, she gently hands He’en the coveted orange jersey and pairs her against a little girl who a) is similarly sized and b) has been intermittently refusing to play unless one – and sometimes both – of her parents is on the field with her.

Unappeased, He’en comes to me with her chin again a-quiver.

“You said YOU would pay wif’ [play with] me.”

“And I will, Helen, when they call our number.”

Glower. “But you don’ haff . . . you need . . . but you are not a Bwanko.”

“Well, I know I am on your team, honey. I don’t need a jersey.”

He’en is in a fierce mood today, however, and this simply is not tenable. Before I can say, “that’s not my kid,” she is back at the coach’s knee, plucking at the coach’s shirt and demanding a jersey for “my mawm.”

Unbelievably, the coach has an extra orange jersey at hand.

It is four-year-old sized, however.

“I usually just tuck it in my pants,” the coach advises me over the kids’ heads. I nod and begin to follow suit. But He’en is having none of it.

“You have to WEAH’ it,” she hisses.

“But I will wear it here on my pants . . .”

“NO! You SAID you would pay and WEAH’ it. You POM-issed.”  A little tear rolls down one cheek.

I hold up the jersey and stare at it. It’s still four-year-old sized.

I am seriously wishing I’d taken up He’en on her demand to go home ten minutes ago. But I hadn’t, and now I am stuck with my own stupid lesson about good sportsmanship.

So I stuff the jersey into my bra on top and into my jeans on the bottom. It covers my front like a lobster bib.

“How about that?”

She nods with grudging satisfaction.

The other moms behind me launch a patter of appreciative commentary along the lines of, “You go girl!”

“I checked so much dignity at the door of that delivery room,” I groan back to them as He’en and I jog toward the “field.”

He’en will be matched three times against her new opponent, a tiny sylph of a creature with long black hair and big dark eyes.

The first match, we run onto the field together. He’en nudges the ball away from the other girl.  Giggling maniacally, He’en kicks a goal . . . into her own team’s net.

“That’s great,” I encourage her, “but you need to try for the other team’s net – that one down there.”

He’en instantly drops the ball and bolts for the sidelines.  The coach whistles our match to a stop.

I join Helen on the sidelines, where she has a choice few words for me.

“I yam not goin’ to play again. I don’ wan’ you telling me what to do.”

“But, Helen, the game has rules.”

“I kicked da ball into the goal. I got a goal.”

“Well, you did. But it was your own team’s goal. If you want me to play out there with you, we’re going to play by the rules and try for the other goal.”

She doesn’t have the vocabulary for “the hell we are,” but I can see it in her eyes.

Sure enough, the next time they call our number, she refuses to take the field.

“Number fives!” the coach carols.

I start onto the field, pause halfway, and look back at Helen. She glares back at me.

“Number fives?”  the coach looks questioningly at me.

The sylph and her father take the field.

“Helen, that’s our number; are you coming out?”

“No,” she grunts, folding her arms.

“It’s . . . um, it’s just me this time,” I call across to the coach.

Undaunted — she’s seen it all — the coach calls, “All right then! Number fives!” and TWEET goes her whistle.

I gently skirmish with Helen’s opponent and then — of course — let her score a goal against me.  Delighted, she grins at me and skips off the field with her father.

I retire from the field without giving my churlish offspring the satisfaction of any eye contact. Take that, crabpatch.

In the third and final match, Helen wants to play again. She dashes past me and channels all her frustration into snatching the purple soccer ball from her tiny opponent.

She dribbles it down the field and smacks it into the correct goal.

The sylph, defending, bursts into tears.

He’en shoots a triumphant glare at me with a smile that I do not like at all.

I turn He’en around by the shoulders and make her say, “good game,” to her sobbing opponent. Then I remind her how she felt last week when the tall girl took the ball away three times.

I am not sure any of it makes a dent.

I feel bad for the sylph; the orange jersey is starting to itch; I was over this whole thing forty minutes ago; and whose freaking idea was it anyway that four-year-olds should be capable of competitive sports?

Through the chaos, the coach announces “kicks on goal.” It’s free-kick time, and everybody gets at least one goal if they have to throw it in.

I look forward to this moment with great joy, primarily because I know the end of this hour is near.

After kicking (or throwing) several goals, the children are wreathed in smiles again, and the coach calls for her jerseys.

I peel off my itchy lobster bib with unspeakable relief and hand it to He’en.

“Better get out there. She has stickers,” I counsel with blank exhaustion. Maybe there will be one bright glimmer in this dark morning.

The kids collect soccer balls and exchange high-fives.

Just as I am zipping my purse and wondering whether it’s really déclassé to bring a flask to next week’s session, I see Helen angling toward me with an air of great purpose.

She zooms right in to hugging distance and starts to tug at my shirt.

“Helen . . . ” I am just about to chide her for picking at me yet again when I look down and realize what she is doing.

“Dere,” she smiles, affixing a neon-pink smiley-face sticker to my collar.  “Dat is your sticker. You did a gweat job today, Mom.”

She received two stickers. She has given me the bigger one by far. For herself, she kept only a small pink star.

I am drained, frustrated, cranky, and deeply moved.  I want to say that she did a great job, too, but a) that would be a lie, and, b) I can’t get the words out anyway because I am weeping a little.

So I just hug her and hug her. Oh, this child, this child of my own.

I had no idea it was so hard to be a soccer mom.

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