Sunday, September 14, 2014

It's Not Whether You Win or Lose...

Saturday morning. Clouds but no rain. Ethan's first soccer game ever, at the field just down the road, was scheduled for 9 a.m.

This whole soccer mom (and dad) thing is new to me and Dan. Anyone who knows us realizes quickly we aren't exactly athletic people. I may like to watch (some) sports, but I'm not particularly good at playing any of them.

Sports for me during my school-age years entailed this: a one season-stunt in 4th grade on a softball team called the North Atlantic Termites. I spent most of the time in the outfield. We were always losing to the Country Cupcakes. Our last game was mercifully cancelled due to a tornado warning, of all things.

Dan's sports career is blank. Zilch. Anna followed in our footsteps, which is why for the past almost-decade we haven't gotten to know other families in town out on the soccer fields.

And then we have Ethan, who loves all games that involve a ball. First there were those couple of simple classes at the community center. Then t-ball. But now, for the first time, he's playing soccer, we don't have much of a clue and I (shhhh) don't even really LIKE soccer.

But Ethan does, and has spent the last four months practicing kicking a ball around in the backyard and playing with the neighbors. It seemed only natural we sign him up to do the real thing. And hence there we were, pulling into the parking lot with about 137 other parents Saturday morning.

In our town the way they structure teams, at least in Ethan's age bracket (kindergarten and first grade) is that each is named after a (soccer-loving) country. They have one practice a week and a game Saturday morning, on one of the four fields just down the street behind the school administrative office building.

Ethan's team is "Portugal," a group of scrappy kids who look as if they are on the younger end of the eligible age bracket: save for Ethan and another boy, who tower over the others. We happened to be playing "USA" on the field as far away from the parking lot as one can walk. We didn't have chairs (ours are covered with cobwebs somewhere). We didn't have a blanket (no time to dig around for one). We looked like definite newbies, but the other parents there seemed nice enough. They seemed human.

And then USA swooped on the scene. We spotted their classic red, white and blues first. Then I saw a mom who's one of the head PTO people or something like that at Ethan's school. She's always there. She knows everyone. Nearly the entire team was full of blonde haired, blue-eyed girls who looked as if they were out for blood. The coach was blonde and beautiful and looked as if she may run marathons. The other coach was buff and had a whistle around his neck he wasn't afraid to use. He had the kids doing warm-ups as if they were undergoing military training, as soon as they arrived.

Did I mention he had a large American flag in tow that he firmly staked into the ground so it could wave proudly in the breeze during the game? Oh, and then there were the "cheerleaders" -- a gaggle of apparent siblings whose job was to wave miniature American flags and come up with various "U-S-A" chants throughout the game.

The Portugal parents watched USA doing their warm-ups. We looked at our kids, half of whom were sitting on the ground, the others doing half-hearted jumping jacks.

One mom yelled out to her little guy in a panic: "Hey! If you play good and score a goal I'll buy you Legos!" Another parent snickered, "What? Did they hand pick the kids on the USA team?"

"U-S-A! U-S-A!" the little girls chanted. I wondered if this was how the puny Uruguayan team felt walking out into the open ceremonies of the Olympics, next to the hordes of grinning, oh-so-confident Americans. I consider myself fairly patriotic, but I couldn't help it: for a minute, I really, really didn't like America. At all.

Whistle. The game began. We held our breath...then realized our team wasn't half-bad. And Ethan was doing fabulously. I marveled as he maneuvered the ball across the field and away from his opponents. He kicked -- and scored! Parents were cheering his name. "That kid's good," someone murmured. He and another boy were the standouts. "We're beating them," he said nonchalantly at the water break, chugging his drink. The Portugal parents slapped hands as if to say "Take THAT, USA!" We sat back to watch the second half of the game...

...and then the wheels came off the bus.

Our kids started to get tired. Really tired. We apparently were missing at least one player while they had several to spare. They kept rotating kids in and out, returning a well-rested little blonde superstar to the field, while our kids were sitting on the ground and their parents yelled "GET UP and GET MOVING!"

Ethan wasn't sitting on the ground. But he was holding his head in his hands, because USA had scored three unanswered goals. Thank God I had warned the coach ahead of time this issue might come up. Ethan tried to pull it together, but every time his team tried and failed to score, his face crumpled.

The game ended at 4-3, USA, with Ethan lying on the ground, crying. USA smugly picked up their flags and trotted off to whatever other perfection they had planned for themselves that day.

Of course, while Ethan may be challenged more than most with keeping his emotions regulated, this was no way to act on the field. We had a looong talk after the game. He slowly transitioned from claiming he was never playing soccer again, to screaming about how much he wanted to win and how he was a loser, to accepting his fate and being ready for next week.

We're ready, too. We've talked about winning and losing. I asked him if Tom Brady was rolling all over the field crying when the Patriots had gotten whupped by the Dolphins the week before. We've crafted a "mental" social story of sorts. If he starts to lose, he needs to repeat to himself:

Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.
I'm still a good player. And I'm going to try my best.

We also have a color-coded behavior system we're going to try, to work on keeping his emotions in check. If he starts to lose it, I'm going to warn him he's drifting from green to yellow, or yellow to red. If he can stay in green or yellow for most of the game, he'll get some kind of little prize.

I have no idea if this is going to work. These ideas are sometimes good in theory and not-so-hot in execution. Will Portugal recover from their first loss? Will they learn to play an entire game rather than just 30 minutes? Will USA continue to embarrass the competition with their flag-waving antics? Will Ethan not just shoot and score, but hold back the tears when the other team does? What does our next opponent, "Belgium," have in store for us next week?

Stay tuned.

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