Everything you need to know about child development, you can learn from soccer.
I know that sounds weird. But it’s true.
Selah has been on a soccer team since she was four. When she was four, I hated soccer, because she basically cried and fell down all the time, along with the rest of the team, and things happened like another little girl intentionally kept taking Selah’s sparkly pink soccer ball, prompting more tears. Periodically the entire team would be gathered and the coach would notice someone was missing, and it would be Selah, off watching clouds (literally), while everyone else was in a huddle. I had a baby then, Asher, and so was sort of generally tired and harried. But man, was Selah cute.
Selah kept playing soccer, and eventually graduated out of U6, so the boys and the girls split up.
Selah and Olivia
Selah spent most of her time on the field waving at me, and most of her time on the bench looking at and waving at me. She would come by whenever she could to touch Asher and talk to me, and sometimes forget to go back to the game. Her focus was on her family. She needed the reassurance, the hugs, the attention from us.
My Cute Soccer Baby
And then something happened when she was in second grade, partway through the soccer season. It happened to all of the girls on her team. In August, they were all looking at us. By the end of the season in November, they weren’t. They were looking at each other.
When she was on the field, she was talking to her friends. When she was on the bench, she was talking to her friends. She still wasn’t particularly focused on the ball, but she wasn’t looking at me the whole time to see if I was watching her. She was laughing and enjoying squirting each other with water bottles and talking about the snacks, and sometimes actually looking at the game.
It was fascinating. It was like some invisible, magical change had taken place. Children start second grade thinking about their mommies, and end second grade thinking about their friends.* It’s beautiful. Ever since then, I have enjoyed the times she still does wave at me and look to see if I saw her kick her goal—or get kicked—but she’s also carefully observing the game now, the world, the other team, the ref. The ball! She watches the ball, too! (At least she often does.) She’s an observer now when she’s on the field. And I observe her, as her legs have grown gangly and she has developed a sense of pride in playing and experiencing successes and failures out there.
I’m thinking about all this today, because today is Selah’s last day of elementary school. This has snuck up on me because lots of kids at her school stay for sixth grade so there hasn’t been a lot of official fanfare. Most of her soccer team will be staying behind.
I woke today full of grief, a grief I didn’t experience when she turned away from me on the soccer field. Because that was a marvelous beginning, and this feels like an ending. And even though we’re in California, and it’s June, and it’s normally 90 degrees, we’re having one day of rain today, and I feel like it reflects my pensive mood and my sorrow.
And yet the sun will come out tomorrow—quite literally—and meanwhile there is another thing of beauty that has happened without me noticing quite as clearly as that second-grade shift. It’s more complicated. It hasn’t been visible on the soccer field, because she’s learned what’s appropriate to focus on there. But every now and then I see that she has turned back toward me. She’s watching me. She’s watching my new marriage, she’s watching my talks with my friends, she’s watching what I think about myself and how I treat myself. She’s watching me care for her brothers and she sees my joy and my fatigue.
And amid all of her observing—amazingly, sweetly—she wants even more hugs from me now than she did when she was younger. She wants me to lie in her bed with her and talk, and she wants to laugh at the dinner table and she’s discovering the joy of shared family humor. She’s looking at me as she turns into an adult. And it’s beautiful. It’s a beautiful beginning.
*Obviously the exact age varies by child.
It has been pointed out to me that I left her assistant coach out of this post. So here’s some serious thanks to Erik Finnerty, who always found her when she was missing during U6, Cheryl Bates, who coached her through the early U8 years, and Alex Ting and Jason Richards, who have seen her score her first goal and kept their patience, mostly, all along.