More wistful than serious about soccer
A couple of weeks ago I stopped in Keene, N.H., to visit my friend John, who teaches middle school science and coaches a varsity soccer team.
Since coaching soccer is something I could imagine doing in a parallel universe, I’m always interested in John’s team.
“How are you doing?” I asked.
“We’re not very good,” he said. “We’re 2-6. And we got crushed on homecoming.”
As an adult, it’s easy to smile at, even mock, the very concept of the big homecoming game. That is, until you suddenly remember your own homecoming games and what a big deal they were.
As John regaled me with his homecoming game horror story (more on that below), I suddenly recalled how serious and important such games once seemed, how wrenching I found each and every loss to our cross-town rival, the evil Hanover High School. (OK, they weren’t really evil. But they seemed evil at the time, and I doubt my feelings will ever really change.)
I longed to beat Hanover, which arguably fielded the best girls’ soccer team in the state, and every year we failed. Also, we had to endure obnoxious chants from their fans, such as “That’s all right, that’s OK, you’ll be working for me someday!” It’s probably a mistake to take a bunch of chanting high school students very seriously, but I always wondered why nobody ever told these snobby kids to knock it off. Like, maybe a parent or coach could have said, “Hey, that’s really obnoxious. Why don’t you find a different chant?” But whatever. The pain of such memories fades with time. Though I do remain grateful that nobody from Hanover High School has ever been my boss.
During my senior year, I began to tire of organized sports. Our season was a disappointment, and I had discovered, to my dismay, that wanting to win was not enough — you actually have to be the more talented team — and that I was exhausted — tired of playing organized sports, tired of dealing with teammates and coaches, tired of practice. In fact, it was after our final homecoming loss to Hanover High School that I understood that I would never play organized sports again — that my athlete phase of life would soon end, and I would retire my varsity letter jacket to the closet to collect dust. I felt sad about this — like a part of me was dying. But I also knew that I no longer wanted to take sports seriously.
On crisp, overcast fall days, I often get the urge to play soccer — to chase after lose balls and dribble around people and defend the goal. The cool air is inviting and energizing — perfect for running around outside. When I walk through Lincoln Park and see the men playing pick-up soccer, I grow strangely wistful.
Of course, it’s been years since I did sprints or laps, and running up and down a full-size soccer field for an entire quarter would probably be the death of me. I did play intramural soccer in college, which I enjoyed, but my one attempt to play in an adult league was unsuccessful, mainly because the people on my team were serious about winning, and I was not.
Which doesn’t mean that I wanted to lose.
But I wasn’t going to get all bent out of shape about not winning, either. Part of the issue is that I am a competitive person, and during my senior year I decided that I had become too competitive — that I cared about soccer too much, and that it had led to heartbreak and disappointment. I don’t want to experience that again, or even be reminded of it. If I ever play soccer again, it will be for fun and nothing else.
Stories of adults who take sports too seriously abound.
My dad once played on a town basketball team with an overcompetitive head case who argued calls and came dangerously close to getting into a fist fight every week. And we’ve all read the occasional article about parents getting into fights at games. Such behavior disgusts me. It’s pretty easy to imagine what kids learn when adults act this way.
Of course, examples of bad sportsmanship are rarely this obvious.
Before his horrible homecoming game, my friend John approached the coach of the other team — a local powerhouse with an undefeated record. “We know that you’re a lot better than us,” he said. “But it’s homecoming, and we’re going to try to hang with you as much as we can.”
If John had hoped this conversation would spare his squad an extra humiliating loss, it didn’t work. Instead, the other team ran the score up to 9-0 and kicked John’s goalie in the head while scoring their final goal, causing him to black out and be removed with a concussion. Because John’s team only has 12 members and lacks a backup goalie, the game was declared over with five minutes left. John then approached the coach and asked him why he hadn’t pulled his starters when the game was so clearly out of hand. “He turned and walked away from me,” John said. “He didn’t say a word.”
John’s story made me remember my middle school soccer coach, who instructed us to go easy on a team we were beating 6-0, which in soccer is a huge margin. “We’ve won,” she said. “There’s no need to rub it in.”
Looking back, I appreciate my old coach’s effort to teach us how to be decent and gracious in victory. I’m glad I played for her and not the creep John encountered.
John also told me about his team’s greatest triumph — a 1-0 loss to Hanover when seeded 16th in the playoffs. “We only lost by one goal, to the top-ranked team in the state,” he said. “We gave them a real fight!”
A 1-0 first-round playoff loss might seem like a funny thing to recall with such fondness.
But I could relate to how John felt, even as I wondered why my soccer memories resonate so much. To this day, I still regret that we never beat Hanover High School. Though I recognize that there are more important things in life and that I have greater regrets.
Foss Forward makes a weekly appearance in print, in The Gazette’s Saturday Lifestyles section. You can email Sara at email@example.com.