Monday, September 19, 2011

Shoot to Score

When I ask, Olivia says she thinks she’s been playing soccer for four, maybe five years. Five years, her mother, Jane, clarifies. So Olivia (Liv to most everyone) has been playing soccer for half her life (and maybe it ought to count for more, since for at least the first eighteen months of her potential soccer playing life she wasn’t yet walking).

Liv plays a lot of soccer. Last spring, for example, she played on a club team that practiced for an hour and a half on Tuesday, Friday and Saturdays, played games Sundays, and had what’s called academy practices on Monday and Wednesdays (of which Liv was only required to attend one, but always attended both). Her own hour and a half practices and extra academies were apparently not quite enough, because on Tuesdays her younger brother’s team’s academy practice was before hers, and Liv would play with them for that hour and a half, too. For the record, Jane wanted me to add this important not-a-tiger-mum-disclaimer: All add-on practices are at Liv’s behest.

One of Liv’s favourite add-ons is when there’s a scrimmage between the girls and boys teams. “The games get stronger and more physical when the girls play the boys,” Jane says. “Like if we really want it,” Liv says, “we have to put more power into the ball, and be more aggressive. So we’re everywhere, running fast, dribbling, passing and taking more shots on goal.” Like having the confidence to race Nascar rules in Ski Cross, the girls’ game goes up a level when they face off with the boys, an opportunity for the girls to show themselves just how much game they’ve got.

All the playing has paid off. Liv’s good. She plays on the best club team for her age. In the summers though there’s no club team, so Liv participates in the local soccer camp. And it was there this summer that Liv’s commitment to and understanding of her sport was tested in a new way.

The girls were playing Around the World, a fast moving drill that mimics game conditions and tests a player’s ability to shoot on goal from different angles. Girls rotated in and out of the goal keeping position, as they chose. Liv was up and took her shot on goal. June, the goalie, a Hope-Solo-in-training, tried to block Liv’s ball with her wrist and broke the growth plate in her wrist. Or at least, that’s what Liv learned later. At the time, June stopped playing, but the no one knew how serious her injury was.

The next day, neither June, nor her older sister, Martha (a friend of Liv’s) showed up to soccer camp. And when Liv called Martha, to ask if she’d come over to play, Martha said she was going to the doctor with her mother and June, to check out June’s wrist, which was probably broken, maybe from soccer camp. Liv hung up the phone and dissolved in tears, telling Jane, “I KNOW I broke June’s wrist.” Jane called June’s mother immediately, to confirm the story.

Despite Liv’s distress at the phone call, later that day, Liv went over to Martha’s for a sleepover, and June acted as if everything was fine between them. It wasn’t until the next morning that things got strange and uncomfortable. At the swimming pool with Liv and Martha and her cousins, June started to act like her broken wrist was Liv’s fault, after all.

Even if it’s been a long time since you were ten-years old (as in my own case), I bet that, like me, you can still remember at a cellular level the pain of being shunned by other girls, no matter how brief the moment. Hell hath no fury and all, well that applies equally to girls as to women. I would not wish it on anyone.

Liv retreated to her mother’s side to recoup her mojo, and Jane recommended she text her club team soccer coach, Noah.

Noah has coached Liv’s club teams for the past two years. His philosophy is to coach the whole person, not just the athlete, and he well understands the leadership and independence he is instilling in his young soccer athletes (his “little warriors” as he calls them), particularly the girls. One of his practice (and game) rules is that a player is never supposed to say, “I’m sorry” on the field, during play. Something I can imagine girls having trouble with, since we’re socialized to apologize for any aggression. After all, a proper girl isn’t aggressive, right? Ha.

An aside, Natalie Angier offers up this perspective, in her book, Woman: An Intimate Geography, “Aggression and depression sound like two different, even polarized phenomena, but they’re not. Depression is aggression turned inward, directed against the self, or the imagined, threatening self.” So perhaps one reason for the significantly higher incidences of depression in women is our propensity to apologize for any aggressive tendencies we might accidentally manifest, say, on the soccer field.

Of course, the girls on Noah’s team can say sorry afterwards, but so long as they are playing clean and fair, there’s no apologizing mid-flight for the accidental hurts inflicted. It’s sports. It happens. Noah’s rule saves a lot of time and breath.

Liv texted Noah that she had taken a shot on goal and broken the goalie’s arm, asking him what she ought to do. Noah texted back, “Get her an ice pack,” and then, “Can’t wait to see you strike the ball when you get back [for the club team season].”

Word got around the soccer camp community about the incident. One coach said to Jane, “If Olivia were a boy, she would have been hoisted on the other boys’ shoulders.” But another coach made a backhand comment to Liv about breaking June’s arm.

Liv has had some bad moments, though once she’d texted with Noah, she never revisited any guilt or uncertainty about her blamelessness. That was solidly past tense. She’s glad, too, that the summer soccer camp doesn’t overlap with the club team, so its unlikely the story will get around the gossip mill. It’s just easier if she doesn’t have to answer, “You broke her arm, really? Was it by accident?” And she is sure of this: “I felt bad, because June was hurt, but it wasn’t my fault.”

Liv says the incident won’t hold her back in her game. Three cheers! That’s playing soccer like a girl.