The Other SidelineBy: Sean | July 29th, 2011
What a difference a year makes.
A year ago almost to the day, we were juggling on glaciers. We were scoring in a stadium of rock and snow and the whole of Oregon heard our goal celebrations from on high. The resulting video of our Two Mile High Club became a viral internet sensation—at least in my own house, where I was chiefly responsible for at least 80 of the 220 registered YouTube views. Ha!—and, pleased with our exploits, we returned back to the world we knew…because for every mountaintop experience, you still have to come down off the mountain. That world we knew included work (for this Weekend Warrior and his motley crew) and school (for our children) and of course, soccer. It included playing soccer on our O-30 weekend adult recreational league. It included watching our favorite teams on television, often at 4:30 a.m. in order to see it live. It included meeting at our local indoor soccer arena every Wednesday night for a match, occasionally not finishing until after midnight.
And it meant many rainy, muddy afternoons at our daughter’s club team’s field, teaching them The Beautiful Game.
Until, at least for me, it didn’t.
As my daughter Kiki continued to grow as both a young lady and a soccer player (she’s ten now, going on sixteen, and only a head shorter than me), I was always there as her team’s assistant coach to shout directions or help with drills. From her first day of microsoccer when I volunteered to help with her team the Daffy Ducks, I got to be right at her side for her first shot on a cone goal to her first throw-in to the her first time playing goalkeeper. And on match days, I got to be on the coach’s sideline, the one here in America where the parents are discouraged from standing so as not to interfere with the team machinations. I got to yell “Attack the ball!” and “Mark your player!” and “Oh! Unlucky!” when things on the field went awry. Sure, the parents on the other sideline were all yelling those things, too, but in theory my and the head coach’s directions were the only shouts that were supposed to matter. It was a privilege and an honor to be entrusted with the safety and instruction of the game to increasingly older kids and eventually, just girls, as Kiki made the transition from rec soccer to Classic. She seemed to make that transition a lot better as a player than I did as an assistant coach.
What a glorious ride it was. There was an undefeated season that was rewarded with the girls shaving the head coach’s head into a magenta criss-crossed Mohawk. [Note: As I’m already totally bald and work in a professional office, I was mercifully spared.] There were routs and blow-outs both ways…avenging a tournament loss to a competitive rival…a heart-breaking defeat in penalty kicks, which is tough at any age but almost cruel for nine and ten year olds…promotion and struggle…and ultimately, the near total dissolution of our club’s competitive side. With the spring came time for Kiki to play elsewhere and as we researched different local club options, it soon became obvious: Daddy wasn’t going to be her coach anymore.
Which was the best thing for her. You can’t always be coached by your father, unless you’re Michael Bradley. What? He was? Really? Well then, never mind. This is not a critical comment directed at those lucky 0.01% of coaches who do get to work with their children for a very long time. But for the overwhelming majority of us, at some point we need to let go and let our children learn their craft from another. Kiki was fortunate to have made the first team at a reputable youth academy. One of her coaches has been doing this for almost as long as I’ve been alive and her other coach played in England. Her touch, movement, and understanding of the game is growing. When instructed to do a certain skill, I don’t ever hear, “Dad, why are we doing this again?” or “Can we do shooting instead?” I just see an obedient nod and then she goes to work on the new skill. New voices and new expectations are pushing her to be a better player in ways that, as her father, I would have been hard-pressed to do. Getting her out of her comfort zone—having to prove herself to a new group of coaches and teammates—has pushed her forward more in the last two months than probably the last year of instruction I gave her.
But never more so was this realization brought home to me than in her first tournament with her new team. On a glorious Friday morning at Delta Park, I took a long lunch from work and went to watch her play…from The Other Sideline. The parent’s sideline: That long, chalky stretch of real estate that was always fifty yards and a world away from where I had watched her play since microsoccer. Amidst the ramshackle collection of camp chairs, blankets, high-powered telephoto lenses and Starbucks mugs was a veritable throng of people I recognized from practice, sort of recognized from try-outs, and flat out didn’t recognize at all…because they were the other team’s parents. I hadn’t thought about that. What if they make a catty comment about Kiki during the match? Do I just ignore it or do I get in their face and tell them to shut the hell up before I go medieval on their a–? Oh my, would I be That Parent? I’ve never had to care what the parents thought during a game. Where do I stand? While most of the other team’s parents tended to conglomerate on one side of the pitch, opposite their team, some were distinctly mixed in with our girl’s supporters. This bothered me in some nagging way that I couldn’t fully describe. Would they think my loud cheering was a passive-aggressive insult on their daughters? I wasn’t even sure if I was a loud cheering type of guy, since all of my other match experiences involved direct instruction and reminding our strikers about offsides.
I found a section of sideline near midfield, among some other parents whose names I remembered from a previous friendly, but I still felt confined. Compared to the open freedom of the coach’s sideline, this felt positively claustrophobic. There were people three feet away! And a dog behind me! What if I threw my arms out in a celebratory gesture and smacked somebody? Or spooked the dog and he bit me? Obviously, I had too much time on my hands to over think the act of standing and watching, but such is my nature. I was reasonably sure I wouldn’t be guilty of coaching Kiki from this sideline—I had signed a parent conduct agreement when she made the team—but does yelling things like “What you see?!” or “Check your run!” constitute coaching? I actually had a minor case of butterflies for both Kiki and me.
But then the whistle blew to start the match and every random thought/worry I had disappeared. It was U11 Classic soccer, only reversed from the way I last remembered it. Cheers went up from both sides, gasps of astonishment were heard at apparent no-calls from both sides, and my intermittent shouts of “Good hustle, girls!” and “Nice job, Kiki!” seemed match appropriate and distinctly un-passive aggressive. The burden of ushering the back line forward on attack and checking Kiki’s run for offsides were not mine to bear…and I was pleasantly surprised at how OK that felt. Amazingly, Kiki was called for offsides once or twice and the world did not end. On the third run I saw her glance back at her mark, step forward to beat the trap, and then wheel around for a run. How about that? Kids learn on their own. She didn’t need me to bark at her after all. How novel. When she scored in the second match later that day, I did not accidentally punch my neighbor in the face during a fit of paternal joy. I didn’t once feel the need to go Marcellus Wallace on opposing soccer moms. And when Kiki’s apparent game winner was called back a full sixty seconds after the play for a phantom offsides violation that no one to this day can fully explain, I found the supportive energy of our team’s parental outrage to be strangely comforting. “She was on,” one mom muttered in my ear. “Totally on. That was a horrible call.” The closeness that was confining earlier that same morning was now supportive and welcomed.
So over the weekend tournaments that followed, I got progressively more used to being on The Other Sideline. My friggin’ awesome wife and I would drop her off at the field and watch her join her teammates by the team bench, getting instruction I could probably guess but never hearing all of it. I could tell from her expressions and to whom she was talking when she was up for a match or nervous, but I wasn’t there to give her the ol’ last minute advice. And she seemed taller than usual, but whatever. That sense of maturity and independence proved that she was in good hands and it had been the right time to “cut the cord”. My place in the crowd was getting familiar until a brief episode last weekend that made me just a little nostalgic.
I volunteered to help set up the team tent to keep the girls shaded during their final group stage match. Two other dads and I hauled the collapsible bench, tent cover, and team equipment over to the coaching side of the pitch. We quietly waited until the earlier high school game was done and then deployed the shelter and bench closer to the touch line while our team began to arrive. Fifteen girls and their matching backpacks soon were aligned with the bench in an orderly row and as I turned to go back to the other sideline, I heard a small voice behind me. It was Kiki.
“Daddy? Can you stay here with me this time?” Her eyes were wide and hopeful.
I smiled and my heart just melted. I have maybe three more years before she likely won’t want to have anything to do with me, so I will embrace these moments when they happen. I told her I had to go across the field to watch, but that she would be just fine. I got a nod, a peck on the cheek, and a little hug before she hurried off and started passing with her teammates. She was just fine. When I’m old and gray—er, still bald, probably—I probably won’t remember the 4-0 win that afternoon. I might remember the glorious run Kiki made to score, which included a pullback and two stutter steps around the back before blasting the ball off the keeper.
But I will always remember a not-so-little little girl who wanted her Dad to hang out just a little longer before going back to the Other Sideline.