Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Virtues of ... Soccer?

          My three year old son, Will, plays soccer in our city league.  (I will pause immediately here to say that, while I never was and probably never will be a true soccer fan, I do not think that it is part of some covert Communist plot to overthrow America.)  Will loves playing soccer, but, bless his heart, he’s got some challenges to overcome.
          First of all, because of when his birthday falls, he is often the youngest player on the field.  Secondly, he is genetically disadvantaged.  Kelly and I both are in the five foot-five inch range; so he’s vertically challenged, and he gets it honestly.  Not only is he the youngest and the smallest, he’s also quite distracted at times with some other things he’s got going on in his mind.
          Will wants to be superhero when he grows up.  So for practice, he pretends to be one virtually every waking moment of his life right now.  Usually, first thing in the morning, he announces who he’s going to “be” for the day.  The current list of usual suspects would include:  Superman, Spiderman, The Hulk, Wolverine, a Power Ranger, Captain America and maybe the occasional Ninja Turtle.  You’ve heard of an actor “becoming the part”?  Well, let’s just say that Will takes his “roles” very seriously.   And don’t you dare think he’s above wearing a full costume to church or the store or wherever we happen to be headed!
          Now the parents and coaches at soccer practice are more than willing to play along with Will’s adopted persona.  In fact, their first question upon his arrival is not “How are you today?”, but “Who are you today?”  And of course Will smiles, and tells them, and then that’s what everyone calls him for the rest of his time on the field that day.  But telling a three year old, who wants to be a superhero, “Good work today, Batman”, is like pouring gasoline on a fire!

          As much as Will loves the attention, this is, as I mentioned, a distraction if the intended result while on the field is to actually be playing soccer!  Trying to turn this into an advantage, I told Will before one game, “Hey, Wolverine.  Pretend the soccer ball is the bad guys, and the goal is the jail.  Then you can kick those evil doers all the way to the gray bar motel!”  Do you think he was fired up?  Man, yeah!  Unfortunately, he spent most of the game talking on his pretend wrist-mounted communication device calling for back-up!
          Kelly and I were frustrated.  On the one hand, he’s only three years old, and if the intent of this whole experience is to have fun, then Will has certainly excelled in that effort.  On the other hand, we paid good money for soccer balls, jerseys, shin guards and cleats.  Not to mention the registration fee for the league.  If all he wants to do is be a superhero, he can do that in the backyard…for free!  So you don’t want to be “that parent” that expects way too much of their child at such a young age, but you don’t want to raise a child that never takes anything seriously either.
          After both and Kelly and I attempted repeated efforts of briefly mentioning our disapproval with his performance, both during and after games and practices, I decided Will and I needed to have a talk.  We were unloading from the mini-van before practice.  I helped him out of his car seat and was trying to explain what we expected, and he was obviously not paying attention.  I gave him a little pop on the bottom.  (Calm down.  Calm down!  I didn’t break his pelvis or anything.  But I did make sure he knew this was a serious conversation.)  Guess what.  It only took one more of those “conversations” for Will’s soccer experience to change drastically.
          In fact, he took on a whole new persona.  At the next game, when someone asked him who he was, he said, “Will Fisher…soccer player!”  And he played like it!  He ran to the ball, he kicked the ball, no “flying” in circles, no calling for back-up.  He even scored his first goal!  I could not have been prouder if he had been playing football for Mississippi State University and they had just won the national championship!  (“Yeah, right!  Like that’s ever gonna happen!”  Hey, if you’d seen Will’s first six weeks of Spring soccer, you would have said the odds of either happening were pretty much identical!)
            Hebrews 12:7-11 reveals what I feel are some important points on this topic.  “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father?  If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline —then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all.Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness.  No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”
          My discipline of Will did not change Will physically.  He’s still “genetically disadvantaged”.  But it changed his attitude.  And, don’t get me wrong, his change of attitude didn’t make him magically run circles around the other players.  But he kept trying, and kept trying.  And he was in the right place, at the right time, and he scored!  I think God calls us to a similar life; accept discipline, keep plodding, ...score.   
Hey, maybe soccer’s not so bad after all.

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