My youngest son is 8 years old. He’s a spunky fellow who does well when his day includes plenty of physical activity (and watching television, he would certainly add). Not surprisingly he happens to be involved in a couple of sports. Since September he’s been playing tennis mostly 2 times a week and for almost half of his life he has played soccer on Saturdays. What has been interesting in this process is to observe how I as a parent have been brought into the picture with my son’s sporting engagements.
Let’s start with soccer.
First of all, the program he attends is called the Soccer Factory and is run by a chipper Irishman, Conor. The Soccer Factory holds its sessions throughout the week at the international school where I teach. My son attends a bilingual Austrian primary school and Saturday soccer means time that we spend together in my environment, all in English. My son started when he was not quite five years old. At the time, he liked running after the ball but didn’t quite grasp the idea of direction. Conor always assured me that as long as N. was having a good time, the direction thing would come.
One of the best traditions ever is the parents’ -kids’ game at the end of each session. This happens for every age group, 4-6’s, 7-9’s and even 10-12’s. (As the kids get older, faster, and better skilled, the number of playing parents decreases significantly I’ve noticed.) Typically, we play for about 10-15 minutes: all the kids, numbering anywhere from 12-30 versus how ever many parents feel up to the challenge. Of course it’s a bit of a free for all but generally kids are everywhere and there are a few adults who really know what they’re doing. These games are crazy, fun, a little risky and from my pedagogical, psycho-social perspective, an absolute goldmine of learning and bonding.
In my day job, I am a physical education specialist. I work with children on developing their movement skills along with their cognitive, emotional and social capacities. Usually I am the only adult in the room. I wonder what my teaching might look like if I had to do it with some or all of my students’ parents looking on. Yet this is what goes on at Soccer Factory week after week. My appreciation for what the team of coaches creates in terms of a positive and fun-loving atmosphere for kids and adults is high. The parents’ -kids’ game shows parents that they belong and that their support makes a difference. It shows kids that adults vary in their skill levels, make mistakes and like to have fun, too.
After each game, there is singing. The two teams line up facing each other arms over each others’ shoulders and the winners (usually the kids) sing the refrain from We Are the Champions at the top of their lungs. Then the kids run to their respective parents to be picked up or hugged. From outside, it might be considered a rather moving scene.
On to tennis.
Regular tennis is a relatively new addition to our schedules and now about 5 months in, I can safely say our schedules because I have started to play, too. When there are sparring matches for the kids on Sundays, I join a group of women for a lesson with my son’s coach. On Tuesdays I can play with one or two other moms for the first hour and if there’s a need, the coach will get us on the court to play short tennis with the kids. In this case, my son is not only there to have fun. He and his 6-10 year old teammates are being asked to level up in order to play age group matches in the summer season. His coach has a playful sense of humor and also demands focused effort.
While I consider myself athletic, playing tennis challenges my body and psyche in ways that are revealing and at times surprising. It’s hard to stay concentrated. I can’t keep track of all the details that need correction. I can move to the ball but not in the right way. My steps are too big, my stroke follow-through too short. There’s so much to work on. It’s a struggle and it’s also fun. Which is why I keep coming back. Because I can feel myself getting better, staying calmer, experiencing success. And the point that the coach makes again and again: “this is what you need to be able to play with N.” His plan for players integrates family involvement early on because he recognizes the importance of these alliances. Successful tournament players require supportive and committed parents. While I could be on the sidelines, this coach has used the opportunity to bring me fully on board where I am spending not just money but time, attention, and physical effort. Talk about effective sales.
I bring all this up because while this has become our family’s norm, I realize that these examples are not necessarily widespread. The approach at Soccer Factory has always been one which encourages fun while introducing manageable challenges. My son attends Soccer Factory not because he has designs on becoming a soccer star, but because it’s fun and it has become a family tradition, a mom-son thing that has stuck. We may not know where tennis will lead, but for now sharing a coach and the experience of learning a sport together provide space for me and my son to grow and develop with each other.
At the same time, as a physical educator, there can hardly be a more effective (and efficient) form of professional development. Not only do I get to observe and experience other coaches’ styles and techniques, I am also reminded, sometimes painfully, of the plight of the learner. It’s not easy feeling incompetent (tennis) or clueless (soccer) but in a cheerful atmosphere, in the company of other learners and a generous teacher, those feelings can direct one to productive action, humbly known as practice.
These experiences leave me wondering what our kids’ sports might look like if we found more ways to let parents get in on the game without overshadowing kids’ need for plain old fun. Or what might change if we opened our PE classrooms to parents once in while to share in their kids’ accomplishments and try out a challenge or two? I see from my experiences so far that sharing my son’s sports helps me be a better parent and teacher.
images via Pixabay.com, CC public domain