They scramble into the car bright and early, little Johnny hastily stuffing the remnants of a Strawberry Pop Tart into his mouth, Mom silently fuming that the last-minute hunt for a lost shin guard (when will they learn to pack their gear the night before?) destroyed any chance of a life-saving Starbucks drive-thru run. The GPS vaguely acknowledges the address provided by the Team Mom, and after passing the field parking lot three times, Mom shoehorns the minivan into a spot close to the path. She hoists 40lbs. of folding chairs over her shoulder, juggles the waters and sun umbrella, and makes her way out to the field, Johnny sprinting 100 yards ahead of her.
After scanning 14 different soccer games in progress, Mom finally recognizes another family from the team. Johnny’s field is at the far end of the park, so Mom trudges slowly, precariously balanced by a somewhat successful effort to equalize the weight on both sides of her body. She chucks and dives between goals and eager little players of all ages, and after a quick 10 minute hike, she arrives at the sidelines relieved, trying to forget that she’s going to have to make the return trip less than 45 minutes later.
The game starts in 30 minutes and Johnny’s team is on the field warming up with their volunteer parent coach. Mom scans the sidelines for a place to set up her gear and finally settles on a spot between the Team Mom and a family she doesn’t yet know. The ratio of moms to dads is 3:1, but the dads that have shown up are intently studying the pre-game warm up and occasionally remarking to one another about something one of the boys has done.
The Team Mom makes her way down the line of parents, collecting photo order forms and remarking how “cute” the boys are and how “bad” the team is that they’re playing today. Mom forgot her order form and tells the Team Mom so, which is met with a slight falter in her Game Day Smile and followed by a quick suggestion on a “Plan B”. Mom smiles politely back, thinking all the while that she’ll just be going with the basic package anyway (i.e. photo button, team shot and individual shot (holding a soccer ball!) inserted into pre-cut cardboard self-standing frame) because those photos will ultimately fit well in the plastic storage bin out in her garage. She has three prior years of photos already neatly stored for some as-yet-unknown future use.
Bored of watching warm-ups, Mom shifts her gaze down the line of parents, watching with a detached sort of curiosity as another couple of moms debate vigorously the pros and cons of the mouse pad vs. coffee mug, while the Team Mom chimes in with her thoughts. Mom sighs and entertains a fleeting thought that maybe she should buy a photo accessory just to show some team spirit. It looks like everyone else is. The thought disappears as quickly as it came. She continues to observe, overhearing snippets of conversation – someone doesn’t like the coach (shocker) – and silently laments the absence of caffeine in her system. 5 minutes until game time.
Right before the game, The Team Mom huddles with the other team’s Team Mom at the center of the field in what appears to be a serious, complicated exchange, given the sudden appearance of a worry crease in her forehead. She turns from the other team’s Team Mom, slaps on her Game Day Smile and announces that in fact the team is on the wrong side of the sidelines – we’re the away team, she says enthusiastically. Mom sighs and begins to pack up what she just unpacked and dutifully makes her way to the other side of the field – the sunny side. The umbrella will be useless because were it to actually do its job of providing shade, it would need to be set up on the field. Mom sighs again and digs for her sunglasses.
Mom settles in between the same family and another mom that has stripe-painted her face and her young daughter’s face in the team’s colors. The painted mom is wearing last year’s team photo button prominently on her shirt. Mom notices the large cooler on wheels at the woman’s feet – Snack Mom, she realizes – and begins to mentally guess what’s inside. Capri Sun (Tropical Berry Flavor), Fruit By The Foot (bright blue for maximum tongue staining), S’mores Granola Bars and a gallon baggie of conciliatory orange slices for halftime, to balance out the sugar and preservatives yet to come. Snack Mom is drinking a Venti Iced Something-or-Other with whip, and Mom watches with amusement as her daughter sneaks a sip whenever the woman is distracted by the activity on the field (or more typically by the constant non game-related chatter she’s engaged in with some of the other moms).
The game begins. Mom notices that the refs are not much older than her son. She realizes that the cadence and fluidity of the game will largely depend on these ‘baby refs’ and their ability to make good calls. She also realizes that, as far as the other parents are concerned, the refs might as well be 42. If history is any indication, they will be held responsible for bad calls. She wonders if the baby refs’ parents are watching. She secretly hopes they are not.
The other team scores in the first 30 seconds. Mom looks to her right almost instinctively and observes as the dad nearest her explodes from his seat and demands an off-sides call. Other families on the team see the determination and intensity on the dad’s face and – not really knowing the game themselves – quickly accept his observation and scream similar acid-tongued commentary…he was off-sides! c’mon ref! no goal! The ref holds her ground (bless her heart, Mom thinks), blows the whistle and the kids line up to start the next play. Next-door dad is fuming, talking to himself while looking at his wife, replaying the scene over-and-over, lamenting the ‘ridiculous’ call and staring daggers at the 13 year-old little girl wearing the ref shirt. This continues through the next two plays as the other team scores again and again.
Mom sneaks a peek at her son as he drops back ready to defend the goal and notices that he still seems to be having fun. She silently hopes he did not hear the expletive that escaped from the dad at the end of his sideline spiel after the last goal, but realizes that if he did there will be a teaching moment in it somewhere. The [volunteer] coach is pacing the sidelines, powerless to stop the onslaught of the other team. His boys are simply not as good, probably not as well-coached. He is taking it in stride and remaining vigilant in his coaching, speaking words of encouragement and insisting that the boys stay tough and play hard. Mom approves. The tone changes among the families around her, with some moms insisting that the other team’s coach should bench the starters. It’s not fair, they lament. They’re rolling over us. They’ve scored enough goals.
As she watches the boys’ positive reaction to their coach’s encouragement (game faces almost across the board), Mom then recalls overhearing some parents gossiping after a similar blowout earlier in the season; one mom insisting to another that a few of the coaches ‘cherry picked’ their kids and that as a result the teams in their league were unfairly heavy with talent. Mom glances down field and sees the complaining mom a few chairs down, noticing that her sobbing son is now cradled in her lap, having been removed from the field after falling down on a drive and getting ‘injured’. Hmmm, she thinks.
As the ref blows the whistle indicating game over (final score: a lot to a little), the parents begin the routine of packing up. The weight of yet another loss physically manifests itself, and the parents move a little more slowly. Across the sidelines at the winning team’s camp, moms and dads are lining up for a high-five chain, whooping and hollering as though at a Super Bowl. Suddenly the losing Team Mom suggests a parent tunnel, ‘to show our support for the boys’. Everyone drops their chairs and shuffles to the sidelines. The coach watches in barely contained horror, as does Mom, as parents line up across from one another, hands laced high above them, battle cries escaping from their mouths. Most of the players are dejectedly turning back from the ‘good game’ routine with the other team, until their eyes register the tunnel. They suddenly develop a little more spring in their step, excited for the display. Their sadness and disappointment – from losing again – is quickly replaced with elation. The parents have soothed their spirits, and they feel like winners. The scoreboard is forgotten as the kids run through the tunnel once, twice, a third time.
Mom observes that her son has avoided the tunnel, instead walking over to Coach for a quick post-game huddle and thank you. He then makes his way over to Mom, head slightly bowed, sweat glistening on his forehead. We lost, he says. Again. Mom gives him a resigned smile and a slight nod – you sure did, she says. Together they pack up, leaving the Capri Sun and Fruit-by-the-Foot behind.
Mom probably doesn’t know it, but her actions on the field before, during and after the game (and every game before) are imprinted in her son’s memory. Thus, when he loses he does not expect to run through a parent tunnel. In fact, if he’s honest he doesn’t really like the parent tunnel when he wins (he’s 11 now – it’s really embarrassing). He does not have an appetite for post-game snacks. He wants to go home, run game notes with his dad, and figure out how to stop more goals. He feels the loss, doesn’t like the feeling, and vows to improve.
He doesn’t recognize it now, but this experience of losing – this feeling of coming up short – will serve him well in the future. He will instinctively know that when he loses in life, it is his own responsibility to figure out why. He will know the feeling of losing, hate it and want to avoid it at all costs. He will not take part in hollow rituals to soothe his frustration. He will not look to his mom to make it all better. He will not make excuses for himself or his team. In some small way the foundation of his journey toward becoming a man of depth and principle was set with one more stone out there on the field today.
Way to go, Mom.