I played a lot of sports as a kid and, like a lot of people, I wasn’t very good at most of them.
I was the strikeout king in baseball, usually getting so nervous before an at bat that I was lucky to even make contact with the ball, much less hit it somewhere in fair territory.
In basketball I took a grand total of one shot during a season in which I quietly hid behind a talented roster that won the championship despite my albatross-like presence.
In high school I played a little football, where for two years I languished just below mediocrity until I finally had a chance to start, which I promptly took advantage of by blowing out my knee and spending most of my senior year on crutches. I also wrestled in high school, won several matches, and lost a whole lot.
In each of these sports I was far worse than I should have been, but with a case of the nerves and possibly low self-esteem, stinking was far easier than excelling. It was as if I was afraid to succeed because I didn’t want to stand out, while also being afraid to fail. Weird, I know.
The one sport I did fairly well in was soccer, which is strange because until recently I’ve spent most of my life never giving it a second thought.
I played soccer for two years in elementary school and had one great year, and one crummy year. That first year, the good one, I played goalie and gave up just one goal all season. The coaches were excellent, and I wasn’t afraid to do the things they said would make me good, and the team made the playoffs. Once in the championship game, though, we came up short (remember that one goal?).
The next year I had high hopes for the team, which was all new — a different coach (one who never got out of her lawn chair and clearly didn’t know what she was doing), different players and apparently a different me. I stunk, was scared most of the time and eventually gave up on the sport.
For a long time after I made fun of the sport, admitted I didn’t understand it, and asked its fans what was wrong with them. To me, it was boring. It was a lot of kicking back and forth, a lot of complaining, and it was nearly impossible to tell who was winning just from watching.
But a lot has changed, mostly because soccer is back in my life, courtesy of my daughter, who’s been playing since kindergarten, and my wife, who’s an assistant coach.
Maybe it’s the kid-friendly rules, such as a set time limit that everyone can follow for quarters, halves and the game. Maybe it’s because I like watching a bunch of kids transform from a marauding group of maniacs to a team that knows how to pass and shoot and block.
Or maybe it’s because my daughter is pretty good at it and genuinely seems to love the sport the rest of the world calls futbol. She’s not afraid to do well and often gets mad when she doesn’t. I’m amazed that she and her friends play soccer at 9 better than most people ever do anything at any age.
Even more impressive is that she plays goalie, which means that when she has a bad day, everybody knows it. But it doesn’t seem to bother her. Maybe because she’s 9, or maybe because she’s a different kind of animal than I am — the kind of animal I wanted to be, not afraid to succeed and not afraid to fail.
Either way, these days I find myself watching a lot more soccer, on TV and at the park, and I find myself admiring more and more those who play it, including all those little third- and fourth-graders who run around for days straight, working hard and having fun in a way I wish I could.
John Saccenti is the managing editor of The Cranbury Press and the South Brunswick Post. He can be reached at email@example.com.
This originally appeared in the May 2009 edition of The Cranbury Press and the South Brunswick Post.