Life

Ivan Gener/Stocksy

This Year I Became A Soccer Mom, And It’s Been Surprisingly Profound

If you’d told me a year ago I’d be here, doing this, I wouldn’t have believed you. But here I am, like some Pokémon that has evolved into its next stage: volunteer coaching a youth soccer team.

Monday and Wednesday evenings in April, I find myself on a school soccer field in outer Southeast Portland, rain or shine. First, we set up the cones to mark the boundaries of the pitch, then more cones for dribbling and passing drills. The other coach brings the pop-up Pugg goals and sets them up at either end, anchoring them with gear bags. As the kids arrive, I chase them down with hand sanitizer. When the grass is high, they wade through it like water; when it’s cut, they throw it around like snow.

If you’d told me a year ago I’d be here, doing this, I wouldn’t have believed you, but here I am, like some Pokémon that has evolved into its next stage: soccer mom.

I put on “Kulikitaka” to hype them up for warmups — toe taps, side-to-side pogoing, passing in a circle, rolling the balls around with our feet. Like in the online classes I’ve taught this year, I try to start with a check-in question: What’s your favorite animal? What do you like on your pizza? I can’t juggle the ball for shit, but the kids don’t seem to mind, as they’re all eager to show off their own skills that seem to improve every time we play.

After an intense and isolating year of online school and no kids activities, the call for volunteer coaches for our youth league’s camps hits different than it might have before.

I’ve always been wary of sports parents, maybe because I had them. Barking orders to everyone, playing the game in their heads while their children are on the field, quick to anger and prone to embarrassing outbursts — you know them when you see them. Mom played soccer in high school in the ’70s and coached my sister’s U-8 team with her best friend. I still feel viscerally mortified remembering the way Dad, perhaps involuntarily, would kick his feet and holler while my sisters played. Later, after we exhausted our own middling athletic talents, Dad channeled his excess sports parent energy for the benefit of the community, taking on a night job as a Little League umpire.

I like watching soccer for the poetry and human drama of it all, but my own relative wariness and lack of athleticism kept me on the sidelines, happy to just sit and watch while a patient dad did the hard work. Sure, I like kicking around the ball in the park but not with, like, rules.

Then, summer 2020 hits, day camps are canceled, and it’s clear that we’re in it for the long haul. Without other options, I walk away from my corporate tech job. I refocus my ambitions on becoming the involved parent I had always thought I wanted to be, taking my kid hiking, fishing, and camping. We hang out with their friends and their parents, something I never had much time for before. We do craft projects and go to kid-centered Black Lives Matter marches, and I fall in with a group of neighborhood moms who seem as heartbroken and pissed off as I am. By the fall, I marvel that I‘ve become the sort of woman who keeps a camping chair in the back of her car for the playground.

So, in spring, after an intense and isolating year of online school and no kids activities, the call for volunteer coaches for our youth league’s camps hits different than it might have before. I have reached the point where I will do whatever I can for my kid to have a chance to, well, play. The fact that there’s no competition and no parents allowed on the sidelines makes the prospect seem much less intimidating. After replying to what was maybe the third round of pleading emails, I get an immediate reply full of gratitude. When I also get a PDF of the U-10 coaches guide, filled with inscrutable directions for drills, I feel an immediate sense of remorse. What have I gotten myself into?

At every practice, I tell the kids, “We’re here to have fun, make new friends and be in our bodies!” but maybe I’m the person who needs to hear that the most.

The league requires a couple of online training courses beforehand, but they’re about preventing abuse and spotting concussions, not how to do the thing. A later email instructs me to pick up supplies from another dude’s porch: a single soccer ball and a drawstring bag of flat cones. I am relieved that no one tells me I need a whistle, too authoritarian and Captain Von Trapp for my anarchist sensibilities. After unsuccessfully trying to get my boyfriend to explain the mechanics of Rondo and Sharks and Minnows to me (one very cute attempt involved our household’s stable of Calico Critters), I turn to YouTube, which is thankfully full of Sports Parents eager to demonstrate their techniques.

At every practice, I tell the kids, “We’re here to have fun, make new friends and be in our bodies!” but maybe I’m the person who needs to hear that the most. My own skills, which were minimal to begin with, do begin to improve with practice, and my grasp of the rules gets a little more cohesive. Even more surprising, to third-graders, my athletic abilities are impressive. Running around the small-side pitch with screaming 9-year-olds, I feel like Christine Sinclair. And the kids, with just a little practice, learn to move in formation so effortlessly, like birds in flight. They communicate, they cooperate, they knock each other down and help each other up.

Maybe it’s because we’ve been so isolated, but hanging out with these kids is delightful — their non sequiturs, enthusiasms, and frustrations bubble up. There’s the kid who asks me to hold his glasses because they keep slipping off his face. There’s the quiet, intense little girl who scores nine goals in one scrimmage. (“She’s cool,” my kid tells me.) There’s a kid who just wants to talk about animals, wandering off at random intervals to say hello to the yappy backyard dogs who live next to the field. Then there’s the kid who needs the laces on his cleats tied at least once each practice and tells me all about his rock collection — we sing “Happy Birthday” to him on the last week of camp.

With the kids’ parents banished from the field as part of the league’s COVID safety plan, there’s not much interaction, other than their genuine gratitude at pickup that their squirrelly children just got to run around for an hour.

There is power and solace in being able to create accepting and positive opportunities for play that perhaps I didn’t experience as a kid.

There is power and solace in being able to create accepting and positive opportunities for play that perhaps I didn’t experience as a kid. As part of the required Safe Sport training, we learn about the inappropriate and screwed up dynamics in youth sports that feel, frankly, way too triggering and reminiscent of things I saw growing up. I wade through it and hope that things are changing, and that it can be different for these kids.

My own kid comes out as nonbinary over the winter, and I have to rethink my rah rah enthusiasm for women’s sports. There are few institutions that enforce the gender binary as harshly. The recent round of anti-trans legislation seeking to exclude and marginalize kids fills me with anxiety and dread, but getting out and playing helps to keep that at bay.

In gathering our ragtag coed group, we’re able to normalize sharing your pronouns and respecting others’ gender identities. (It’s no problem for the kids, but the parents struggle.) Having this safe and fun place for my kid to play and interact with their peers, who truly have no use for binary gender, helps me come to terms with who they are. It changes the way I see myself, too. Being called “Coach” still makes me giggle.

For the kids, and for me, the pitch becomes a place to work through the experiences we’ve all had in the past year, with the pandemic and the protests and police violence, the fact that the sheer amount of tear gas deployed in our city has created an environmental health crisis. Kids talk about missing their friends and their teams from the year before, about hating online school and all the abrupt changes in our lives.

“[We] might say that the proper political form of football is socialism,the philosopher Simon Critchley posits. “Freedom is not experienced apart from others, but only in and through association, where collective active action both integrates and elevates individual action.” Turns out, for all my apprehension, youth soccer is as good a place as any to build praxis. Playing with kids makes this so clear, that being and working together transcends winning and losing, that our time together is an opportunity to create the world we want to live in. Soccer teaches you that just being present and playing is its own reward.

Before the pandemic, I was critical of white feminist gospel around success and advancement, but still, at heart, thought the best thing I could do for the world was to, well, get ahead — to work harder and longer, to attach my worth to whatever prestige I could accumulate, to (cringe) create change from within large, corrupt institutions. I avoided the PTA and school volunteer calls, hissing that it devalued women’s labor. It felt hollow, but I thought the most impactful thing to do was to make money and write checks to people doing the real work. I was also intensely wary of showing up, afraid of being judged for being divorced or not fitting in in any of the ways that I had convinced myself I stuck out.

Maybe I’ll never be the same, and there’s possibility, strength, and purpose in that, too.

On Father’s Day, the kid is with their dad. My boyfriend and I go see my beloved Portland Thorns play the Kansas City Royals. He gets a good deal on club seats and we watch from midfield. Being back in the stadium, the feeling I get being at the match is the same when I’m playing on the field — being exactly where I am supposed to be, at ease in the moment; the voices in my head that spout woulds, shoulds, whens and have-tos fall silent.

I can’t take my eyes off of Kansas City’s captain, Amy “A. Rod” Rodriguez, feeling a little shudder of recognition. A. Rod is, like me, a short blonde Cuban American mom who is really a bit much, an Aquarius, too. She hypes up her team, shouts at the refs and commands the field even as they’re no match for the Thorns’ defense, hovering around every flop or possible foul.

Sitting next to us are two 20-something dudes, not supporters of either team, just here to admire the game. They ooh over Lindsey Horan’s tactical prowess and A.D. Franch’s fearless goalkeeping. I eavesdrop as they talk about training and team play, and working as summer soccer camp coaches.

“I just can’t deal with the U-10s,” one of them says. The other groans in agreement.

“I had them out on the field for 15 minutes before they could scrimmage.”

“They’re too much, just all over the place, total chaos.”

I chuckle and swell with pride and stop myself from butting in. I did that, I coached the U-10s, I surfed the chaos, and I loved it.

And here I am, this evolved Pokémon. It has taken a year when I've lost my professional identity and witnessed so much trauma to learn that showing up and doing something real is the only thing you can do sometimes. I've learned that there’s real power in creating spaces for care and support, even if they are fleeting. Maybe I’ll never be the same, and there’s possibility, strength, and purpose in that, too.

There’s this argument that youth sports help to instill good citizenship, and I believe it. But there’s a flip side to this as well — for years, I’ve told my kid that singing bawdy soccer chants is OK when we’re at a match because it’s a liminal space, bound by rules and time to contain our collective id, and this is what makes it so fun.

Now I’ve come to think that sports parents know this instinctively, and they get so extra not out of enthusiasm to enforce rules and build hierarchies but because you’ve got to get that out of the way in order to make the good stuff happen — the chaos, the moments of brilliance, that freedom of playing together. Like most of the infrastructure-building work of parenting, it’s invisible until it’s absent or broken. I look back at my own parents and realize that’s what skilled athletes do: make it look so easy.