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Working Professionally with Children and Youth in Care
CYC-Online Issue 137 JULY 2010 / BACK
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The soccer summer

Kiaras Gharabaghi

In honour of the World Cup being played in South Africa as I am writing, I thought I should write a story about soccer. Sadly, however, the first round of world cup soccer rarely produces anything noteworthy; as expected, the French are paying the price for getting there at the expense of the much more deserving Irish, the English are as always proving that inventing the game does not add up to being good at it, Maradona is wearing the most expensive suit at the tournament and Switzerland took down the high flying Spaniards, once again proving that timing is everything. As far as I am concerned, Uruguay is the team to beat.

As it so happens, the world cup is not the only soccer going on this summer. I am coaching my nine year old son's soccer team, and this is yielding much better stories for CYC-Net. Here is the thing: my team is by far the worst team in the league, and in our opening three games we were outscored 27-0. Recognizing that this is likely not going to be a winning season for us, I spend most of my time coaching trying to keep the kids” love of the game alive, blow-out losses notwithstanding. We–ve talked about not worrying about the outcomes of the games but focusing instead on improving our skills; and we talked about celebrating the little things we’re doing right; a good save from one of my two beleaguered goalies, a nice clearing, a good run on a break; whatever it takes to make the summer and the soccer a good time for all.

I am always amazed at kids and how well they can switch the channel. Sure, before our first game, they all thought they were fantastic and that we would likely be a force to be reckoned with; seven goals against us later they clued in that perhaps the championship might not happen this year. But once we talked about it, re-framed our goals for the season and ensured that having fun was going to feature large in our practices, they were good; defeat didn’t bother them at all, everyone kept coming to practices and we–ve been having lots of laughs. Last night was our fourth game, and to the extent that my kids had any ambition at all, it was not about winning the game but rather scoring the team’s first goal of the season. Well, they did, in the second half when the score was 9-0 against us. A beautiful free kick placed in the top right corner of the net (scored by Jett Gharabaghi!). I was amazed at the extent of the celebrations. The kids rushed the goal scorer, piled on top of one another and I am pretty sure a couple of them had tears in their eyes.

Such is the nature of kids; they live in the moment, and they have figured out that lamenting things for too long is no fun at all; instead they focus on what is good, satisfying and hopeful. And when they find it, they celebrate without a care and without any mitigation by context. Becoming an adult, sadly, frequently result in a loss of this perspective. Adults are problem-oriented, and like heat seeking missiles, they try their best to identify the problem, focus on it incessantly and then destroy it by whatever means necessary. In coaching my son's team, I am finding that working with the kids is great and unproblematic. Whatever conflict does arise is resolved immediately and resolutely, and no one has the time or energy to think about it again. Not so the adults. One of the players on my team is behaviorally a little more unique than the others. He swears a lot, is quick to judge the performance of others and frequently needs repeated reminders to focus on the task at hand; in other words, he is my kind of kid. Over the past few weeks I have gotten to know his situation a little bit; in talking with his mom, I’ve learned that he has experienced quite a few losses over the course of his young life, none as difficult as the separation between his parents and the now unreliable relationship he has with his dad. The resultant emotional challenges for this boy have spilled over into the school environment, where he finds himself face to face with the principal far too often. Multiple suspensions have caused stress in the home environment, and over the past couple of summers, his behaviours have led to exclusions from various recreational activities as well as from summer camp.

Perhaps all of this would sound ominous if I were a soccer coach only; maybe I would be nervous, or annoyed or felt the need to protect the other kids from this boy’s conduct. It turns out that many of the parents of the other kids were expecting me to take care of this issue the way they might have done. I have received multiple comments, including nuanced ones such as “I’m surprised you still have the boy playing on the team” and overtly challenging ones such as “when are you gonna get rid of that kid–; some comments have been judgmental in offensive ways (–kids like him deserve to get kicked out), others have been judgmental in ignorant ways (–I feel sorry for him, it’s not his fault his family is dysfunctional–), but the collective message of the team’s parents is crystal clear: the kid is the problem, so get rid of him.

This is truly a sad state of affairs. I wonder how it is that otherwise perfectly fine people feel compelled to be so heartless and uncaring for children and youth who may not behave according to whatever standards they might claim to maintain in their families. And I wonder when it became socially acceptable to express such judgmental nonsense to others. But I no longer wonder why the up and coming generation of young persons, especially those who seem to be achieving success in terms of academic and material criteria, is likely going to contribute to the further decay of community and collective responsibility. I suppose when this is what they hear their parents say, there is very little room for embracing difference and for developing a sense of empathy for others.

The other day I was again confronted by a group of parents about my “difficult” kid; after listening for a couple of minutes, I said this: “you know, friends, in soccer we have a golden rule: if you are troubled by the other, it’s probably because you’re not good enough”. Then I left them standing there.

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