Monday, 13 January 2014

Kids, Competition and Politics

My son had the first real heartbreak of his life last week.

His rep soccer team announced the division of A and B teams - and he's been slotted to play for the B team. He's devastated. Beyond words devastated.

So am I.

My son's entire life is soccer. It's all he wants to do, all the time. It's all he talks about. He started playing house league when he was five and has played rep for the last two years. He plays soccer every recess at school and goes to soccer camp every summer. He is never happier than when on the pitch. He even hopes to be a pro player when he grows up. He trains like a crazy person and works his little butt off and has never missed a practice or game. But that's not enough.

The coaches announced before Christmas break that the team would be divided into two groups in the new year. It's a tough team with a lot of great players - we saw that at tryouts - so we were a little anxious. We came home and wrote out a list of all the players and tried to figure it out for ourselves. (I'm sort of obsessive like that.) We have just as good an understanding of all the players and their abilities as the coaches do - after an entire year of watching most of these kids play for hours and hours each week and three months of watching the couple of new kids train with them, we know who can do what. After looking at the list as objectively as possible, we knew there was very little doubt that our boy would be on the A team. He's easily one of the strongest defensive players on the team. No other player can come close to matching his footwork. And he's far and away one of the most committed players. We were quite confident.

The only thing that gave me a little bit of anxiety was the fact that our coach and his son are also involved in hockey, along with about half the team, and there's sometimes a bit of a "club" mentality between them. But, surely, that wouldn't be a factor - would it? Politics and favouritism in children's sports? Surely not. Not when most of those players come to fewer than half of our practices because of conflicts with the hockey schedule. Not when our son is clearly a stronger, more skilled and more dedicated player.

I was wrong.

The list was released the day of our first practice back. The A team consists of all the hockey players. The B team consists of all the other kids.

I lost it. I was actually crying my eyes out - not only out of disappointment myself, and not only because I knew how disappointed my son would be when I told him, but over the sheer unfairness of it all.

The world is unfair. I know this. I know this is also a lesson my son needs to learn at some point. But I think it sucks beyond words that he has to learn it now, and that he has to learn it about something that so important to him and close to his heart.

My boy's heart actually broke when I told him about the decision. I was barely able to hold it together, aching to protect my baby, hurting with his disappointment more than if it were my own and filled with anger at the coaches and frustration at my inability to do anything about it.

My phone was ringing off the hook all afternoon with calls from other team parents trying to figure out why and how this happened and what could be done. The thing is - nothing can be done. The coaches make the decision, and the decision is final.

A few hours later we had to put on our game faces and head out to practice. That was hard.

At the start of practice Coach had a little pow-pow with the team, talking about how hard it was for him to divide the team and if any of them wanted to talk about it he was always available. My boy stared intently at his own feet and his ears turned a deep shape of red as I watched him valiantly fight back the same tears I could feel stinging behind my own eyes.

The kids broke off into groups for drills and I watched him run and laugh and sweat, his face filled with joy as he played the game he loves most in the world with his best friends for the last time - starting next practice the two teams will train separately and he will no longer be playing with his usual line.

I sat with all my soccer mom friends, lamenting how different everything would be this year, feeling dismal and disappointed and trying to keep a neutral face on for my boy.

Time has put a bit of perspective on the whole thing. Another look at the team rosters shows that because all the hockey players were kept together on the A team, the B team in fact is left with more of the stronger players. The designated coach for the B team is someone we've known and liked for years. This season will likely not be the disaster we'd initially feared.

And, as disappointed as we are, this one small decision is not going to make much of a difference in the long term for our little superstar's soccer career. He's still playing the game he loves. He's training just as often, with just as qualified a coach. He won't be playing with all the same kids as last year - but he'll be playing with a stronger and more dedicated group of kids. And next year will bring yet another season, yet another team, and yet another series of challenges and changes. As long as he's playing, nothing else really matters.

But it really, really sucks that the politics of competitive sport has to start so early - and that my little boy has to learn so young the lesson that life's not fair.

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  1. Ugh. I'm so angry for you! But hopefully, like you've said, the B team will end up being the stronger of the two teams and will really shine. Maybe, in this situation, B stands for Best. :)

  2. Yeah. Poor kid, though. I can't even describe how upset he is or how awful I feel for him. And it's not just him - we figure (the other moms & I) there are three or four kids on each team that are blatantly on the wrong team. Which is a lot when there are only ten per team!