"This year," Ethan's soccer coach said on the first day of practice, clipboard in hand,"We're going to work on self-control." She reminded me of the coach from Glee. Except she looked nothing like her; just tall and enthusiastic.
I was glad to hear it. Last soccer season had been one big lesson in self-control, and I'm not sure Ethan passed. The bottom line is, he hates losing. He especially hates falling behind if he was the one to allow the other kid to score. We had a couple of knock-down, drag out tantrums last year. I was constantly reminding him that he was "Inching towards the red zone" and needed to calm down. Many Dunkin' Donuts bribes were also involved.
Never mind autism, this struggle to keep emotions in check is in part, sadly, inherited. It's a struggle I've had since childhood. Some people have anger issues. I have crying issues. I cry when I'm sad. I cry when I'm angry. I cry when I'm happy. In fourth grade a school psychologist called home wanting to know why I cried so much. I've cried at every "real" job I've worked. I've also spent a good amount of time in bathroom stalls, sniffling, and pressing wet paper towels on my cheeks and around my eyes to eliminate the evidence.
Over time I would say I've gotten better. But I know how important it is for Ethan to start working on stuff like this early on.
The first game, he wasn't put to the test. They won fairly easily and never trailed. I knew it was only a matter of time before the issue came up again, and dashed a quick email off to the coach to give her some background and let her know this is something we were continually working on with Ethan. The night before the next game, we had a little chat.
"You've got to stay calm tomorrow, even if you fall behind. You know, if you throw a big tantrum, the coach is going to bench you and you'll have to sit out the rest of the game."
"I don't want that to happen!"
"Then remember to stay calm. What could you do when you start to feel really, really upset?" I told him he could bite his lip (not too hard!). Clench and unclench his fists. Take a few deep breaths and remind himself that it was just a game. The strategies all seemed kind of lame. Maybe I'm not great at coming up with ideas since I still haven't mastered this myself.
The other team on Saturday was bigger and more aggressive. They also apparently played dirty. Several kids on Ethan's team complained that they were teasing and mocking them. A few others got knocked down by more than a little roughness. Before long they were several goals ahead.
"They're all third graders!" Ethan's teammates kept complaining. "They're better than us!" One kid was so desperate to try to score against them that he kept tripping over himself and getting hurt, then crying.
"STOP THAT!" his father kept bellowing. "This is pathetic. There is no reason for you to be crying!"
I could only imagine what he'd be thinking if Ethan lost it.
Trouble came near the end of the game. Ethan was one on one with a kid who was just a little bit faster and better with his footwork. He got the best of Ethan and scored. From the other side of the field, I saw it; the dejected way he was hanging his head; the pacing. This was the precursor to tears and a meltdown. I started to walk over there.
Everyone else thought Ethan was hurt, as he hung his head down and the two coaches talked to him in low voices. I could see that he was biting his lip; his eyes were wet and a few sobs had escaped him.
"Ethe," I called gently. "You okay, buddy?"
"He wants to stay in!" the coach called to me. I could see the look on his face. It was, to use a word Ethan likes, fierce.
Oh, how I knew the struggle. How I knew that moment you feel something and it takes over everything. You body. Your mind. Your instincts. It's like a horse galloping away before you've had time to grab the reins. Tugging the reins is like swimming upstream, like slogging through mud.
But he was doing it. He was swallowing hard and moving on.
There must have been 15 minutes left in the game. Any time the coach checked with him, he was resolute. Even when she just wanted to sub him to give him a break physically, he refused.
"I'm not going to force it," she said. "I see the look on his face." Fierce determination.
His team lost the game. Three kids ended up on the sidelines with ice packs and tear-stained faces. The coach admonished them for not communicating better and for lacking energy.
For Ethan, this was not the time for lectures.
"You did it!" We patted him on the back. "You kept it together."
No more tears. No rolling on the ground.
"Ethan," I said, "Do you know we are more proud of you right now than if you had won the game?"
"Yes. Because you had self-control."
"I DID cry once."
"But you calmed back down. You didn't let it get out of control. We are so proud."
Hugs. I wished I could have conveyed how strongly I felt; how important this was; as someone who fights with emotions and moods all of the time. But I knew he wouldn't quite get it. So I gave him one last hug.
And yeah, I was so moved, I kind of wanted to cry.
Sunday, September 20, 2015
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