In 2001, my oldest daughter entered kindergarten, and that fall, I signed her up for a soccer team through our local parks and recreation office. My husband was a huge soccer fan; he hadn’t played on a team since he was a kid, but he still wore Adidas sweatshirts and bought a world-cup ball every four years. He was the one to suggest we sign her up, and he was the one who often stayed on the field to help the coach.
That year she got a team t-shirt, a photograph of her giggling teammates, and orange slices at every halftime; it was great fun! So much fun that she wanted to play on the spring team and again the following fall. So much fun that she eventually joined an indoor team to play all winter. So much fun that when she turned ten, she asked to try-out for a select team that travelled all around the state, had real uniforms, and backpacks with each girl’s name embroidered across the top.
It seems like a no-brainer that if a child loves a sport one should get behind the effort, pony-up the money, join the carpool, and buy more halftime oranges, but my daughter’s soccer history is complicated. You see, in 2005, her father—the soccer loving, world-cup watching husband I mentioned—died. That same year, my daughter asked to try-out for the travelling team. I was the mom on the sidelines who was still confused over the off-sides rule, and the idea of a travelling team felt exhausting. It would be expensive and time consuming. She would have to give up skiing, and basketball, and time with her friends. It seemed ridiculously all-consuming for a ten-year-old, and without my soccer-loving husband to lead the charge, I wasn’t sure I had the energy.
Fast forward sixteen years and my daughter is finishing up her final season with her college team. She did earn a spot on that travelling team in 2005, and she did give up a great deal to move up through the soccer ranks. After more than a decade of watching my daughter play, one would think I would now be an enthusiastic fan; one would be wrong.
To me soccer feels like that bad boyfriend no mother wants for her daughter. You know the one—he gives his girlfriend just enough attention to keep her around, but not enough love to really help her shine. My daughter has had years where she won awards, and seasons where she never left the bench. She has been pulled from the game so the coach can play his best-friend’s daughter, and she has won games for her team when the deciding factor has been a single penalty kick. She has had coaches adore her and coaches completely ignore her. Soccer has left her full of self-doubt and soccer filled her with purpose. The crazy swings from hero to zero that this sport has inflicted leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth.
When she started playing in 2005, she began as the goal keeper in front of a tiny plastic-rimmed net. We are from Washington State, where it rains all the time and the fields are vast tracks of mud. When soccer is not being played, these fields are home to dozens upon dozens of geese. My daughter became the goal keeper because she was the only five-year-old not afraid of goose droppings. That’s right, her sixteen-year-long career began because she was the only girl willing to dive face-first into poop.
I think about that now, all the years of diving and jumping; all the years of triumph and failure. All the years I loudly suggested, “Quit soccer! Join cross country where it is just you, a stopwatch, and some hard work.” She persevered; she stayed put; she outlasted, and no matter what her saves-on-goal record is, she won. She won because the world is full of poop, and my daughter is unafraid.