"Daddy, why do coaches always look so angry?"
AJ asked me this while watching Kings' coach Daryl Sutter a few months back. I could have pointed out how Sutter always has the same expression or launched into a hilarious impression of his mumbling sarcasm. Instead, I said,
"No matter what the score or situation, coaches always know there's something the team or player can do better."
This goes for fathers, too.
The word is "dingo." It's the safe word I gave Emet to use if I get to riled up at AJ's soccer games. I'm not coaching--having an infant in your house pretty much exhausts all time and energy for such an endeavor--and I promised myself that I would be nothing but positive at his games and stick to cheering, rather than coaching.
Oh man. So difficult. Though, in two games, I've only heard "dingo" once and I called it on myself.
Look, I know the game. I also know players. I look out at AJ's team and see myriad problems and solutions. None more than when I look at my own son and the aspects of the game he could do better. But I also see--finally--a child who is playing. He is at play. He is not analyzing his teammates' positioning. He is not grumbling to himself over his coach's inane tactical decision to play a high defensive line. He is out there trying to kick the ball. He wants to be involved. He is playing.
Growing up, I also did a lot of playing. But sports? No, sports were not a game to me. Sports is competition. To be sure, the youth sports environment was a different one than today. Participation trophies, equal playing time regardless of ability (or even coming to practice). I'm not saying these things are bad. It's just the way games are governed these days. I'm all for teaching important lessons though sports. Teamwork, grace, humility, sportsmanship. For me, it was different. I was taught how to win.
I remember an important soccer game when I was nine. We'd faced our opponents many times previously, kids against whom I'd play 50 more times over the course of my youth, and we'd already fermented a rivalry. We knew them as well as they knew us, were equally talented on the pitch. And our coaches--of eight and nine-year-olds, mind you--tried to give us a psychological edge going into the game. We were instructed to go in hard on tackles in the first few minutes of the game, and, as we did so, to greet the opposition, let them know we're there, so to speak. So, we were running around screaming "Hello Kevin!" as we kicked the ball away.
This is not something that would be acceptable in our local AYSO league in 2012. However, this sort of attitude is part of my DNA. With the passing of my youth, I've remained intensely competitive. I have needed an outlet for that every day of my life. It's taken different forms. In college, I played every intramural sport, I played pick-up basketball four times a week. After graduation, I played adult baseball, then 12 years of rec league soccer. That was followed by poker and now, golf. (Yes, I am acutely aware that my pursuits have become less demanding physically.) Not to mention my behavior as a fan of professional sports, which is rabid, perhaps even borderline psychotic (poor Emet having to first go through the Kings' Stanley Cup run, followed by the A's in playoff contention. The woman is a saint). I have to have something in my life that satisfies this urge to compete. To win.
Though I am loathe to admit it, coaching soccer was also one of those pursuits. The three years I coached him were not entirely pleasant, for either of us. Like Daryl Sutter, I kept asking for more from him and he wasn't willing (or able) to give it.
Here is where I erred. Yes, my child is competitive, like me. Yes, he burns to win, like me. It's not something I've told him was important. No. But he definitely learned it by watching me. That winning is the goal.
Except, he's not wired like I am. When I was intrigued by the poker boom, I spent six months reading poker blogs and poker books before I ever played a single hand. I watch golf videos for hours on end to refine my swing. I am intrigued by the process and know that preparation and practice are integral to results.
He doesn't yet get that correlation, that being successful is not just showing up and running around. It's repetition and study and analysis and having a store of knowledge to predict outcomes, to hone instinct, to recognize patterns. Each of which gives one the ability to react quicker, more decisively, correctly.
You know without me telling you that I've tried to impart this lesson. He's just not interested (sports-wise; academically, he doesn't get a choice whether to be interested or not). Maybe he never will be. It just might be that he wants to play. Except, he also wants to win. Therein lies the disconnect. Therein lies my problem.
His soccer team is not going to win much. It's not an athletic bunch. I didn't need to tell him this. "I'm never going to win a championship," he said to me after Saturday's drubbing.
Where am I supposed to go with that? Do I break out a "keep working hard" speech? Do I wrap my arms around him and tell him I love him and that he played great and three months from now he'll have a shiny new participation trophy? Can I tell him to just keep his head up and have fun out there?
That's the point really. After all he's learned by watching ultra-competitve me (screaming at umpires, criticizing A's infielders, the occasional medium-to-deep depression when the A's blow a four-run lead in The Bronx), can I truly default to "have fun" and not have it ring his bullshit bell?
I guess we're going to find out.
I'll never be able to stop asking more from him. That's my role as his father. There are areas where I can push him. And ones where I can't. The key is knowing what he can handle and when I am asking for too much, whether or not I am unfairly demanding something from him that he is unable to give.
We had a little talk the other night, nothing serious. It was more like a State of the Union deal. How's it going in class? Are you understanding the lessons? Anything Daddy can do to help?
I'm always prodding him to open up to me. He's a sensitive kid that sometimes holds his disappointments inside and I want him to know that nothing is off-limits between he and I. And at some point in this talk I said, "Look, I'm on your team. I'm on your side. You are 'MY GUY' and there's nothing that you can ever do to change that."
He liked that. He trusted that. It's something I can do better.