I have been coaching and providing private soccer sessions for close to two decades now and — Wow! — just saying that out loud makes me feel old. I work with children of all genders, ages and skill levels. It is a way for me to share my passion for the game and pass along the plethora of lessons the sport has taught me, both on and off the field. I can’t even begin to describe the smile that spreads across my face when a player masters a skill or grasps a concept we have been working on for weeks. On weekends, when my phone buzzes with texts from parents about a goal scored, a pass made, or a challenge overcome, the smile returns.
As a coach and mentor to many kids in the District of Columbia area, I realize my role goes way beyond the white lines — especially during a year where our country is fighting a global pandemic, electing a new President, confronting systemic racism and tackling climate change. These kids are facing unprecedented issues and the pressure can be absolutely suffocating. Sport is one of the few outlets these kids still cling to and it’s obvious, when out on the pitch, all those cares disappear — even just for that brief, precious time.
That’s why my heart began to ache instantly when I received a recent text message. The mother of one of my 9-year old clients asked, “Do you think my daughter has potential?” I wanted to type furiously. Truthfully, I wanted to scream out the words: “OF COURSE YOUR DAUGHTER HAS POTENTIAL!!!” Then I took deep breaths. I sighed. My fingers worked on my screen the best they could to communicate politely through the ranting in my head. “Whether it’s her first day ever playing the game, or her thousandth, EVERY player has potential . . . the potential to grow, develop, learn and capture the umpteen benefits from running around and participating in sports.”
What the parent wanted to know, of course, was whether HER daughter has what it takes to “make it,” whether it be her high school team, a college team and, yes, The National Team. And any parent who starts asking that question, especially at age 9, already risks having their child miss out on all the stuff we just wrote our book about: resilience, grit, determination, teamwork, leadership — FUN — and a gazillion more residual benefits. Maybe a girl, or boy, can juggle 50 times more than someone else. Maybe it’s 20 times less. “Please don’t see her as a fixed product,” I wrote. “She is a beautiful work in progress and one who will continue to improve with practice and parental support. And the more you allow her to just play, the better she will do in school, the more adjusted she will be emotionally and mentally, and her character strengthening with each touch of the ball.”
There were not enough words in the English dictionary for me to truly express all I wanted to say, but I concluded anyway: “It’s natural to compare ourselves to others. It’s hard not to. But please tell your daughter she is perfect just where she is and she will get better if she keeps practicing. She should feel no pressure to measure up to ANYONE. I adore her and I’m here to help anyway I can.”
It’s a universal message, whether I train your child, or you read my book, or you’re just holding on for dear life as a parent: YOUR kid has potential and will never stop having potential. I’d like to dispose of the notion, once and for all, that you have to be an elite athlete or reach some arbitrary level to love, play and reap the immense benefits of sport. I want to make clear that the game of soccer, most especially, is meant for everyone. Everyone. And please never forget that, no matter how high your kid rises in the soccer ranks, the beauty of the game is evergreen. As a retired professional athlete who enjoyed a rollercoaster 16-year career, I still smile ear to ear when I nutmeg one of my players. And in my heart, I can still feel my own potential for when I grow up.