It’s 45 degrees out, so cold that a mist hangs over the baseball outfield we’re using for our game today. The ground is wet and seeping through my sweatpants because I forgot to bring our camping chairs again, and I’m about to get up for the third time to re-tie a lost shoe. One of my kids is inspecting a large and apparently fascinating leaf while the ball rolls past him, and the other is on the bench asking the other kids if they’ve seen any cupcakes for the third time. Yet, at no point do I even consider leaving early from our town’s weekly organized pre-k soccer games.
Our town organizes a kids' soccer league each fall for ages 3 and above. We weren’t initially sure if we’d have our boys join, but for the low cost of entry, we figured it was worth a try to try to make local friends and to have another way to get some activity into their lives. I had played as a kid too, though a little bit older and while I remember more about running around and playing on the swing sets near the soccer fields, it was at least a reason to get out of the house as a kid.
We discovered that three year old soccer is less about soccer tactics and strategy, and more like rugby. Even with frequent admonition regarding “no hands” and “no pushing” as really the only two rules, there tends to be a scrum to be broken up about every five minutes. At the end of eight weeks, they did get considerably better with games starting to resemble soccer more than a wrestling match thanks to repeated practices and experience in games. We also discovered that our kids in particular preferred practice to the actual game, mostly because they got to have their own ball and kick it throughout. Perhaps the biggest factor though was just how much difference a good coach can make.
We were extremely fortunate to have some incredible coaches for our boys' team. I can’t imagine the dedication and patience it takes to prepare and run practices and games every single week and to wrangle a group of tired three and four year olds for an hour. While the parents mostly got to sit and relax while keeping an eye on their kids, the coaches have to run practice and watch nearly a dozen kids all at once. Even more, they have to invent games to keep the kids entertained while still teaching them skills for the game. At three, they aren’t doing drills, but inventing games like ball tag with the coaches acting out an animal each time they are tagged or blowing up the spaceship - the spaceship being a goal - take imagination and patience to actually do. I could never have done this myself. Keeping our own kids disciplined and participating is enough of a challenge without having to do it for 10 other kids.
We primarily wanted to get the boys involved in soccer from an early age not because we want them to become soccer stars, but to start instilling fitness and teamwork as important life lessons from an early age. I never expected them to become Premier League players - and expect it even less after their cupcake and leaf explorations - but learning to become part of a team is an important lesson I wanted them to learn. To this end, it was a huge success. They built friendships with their team mates and coaches and even when not playing, would sit on the bench with their team and cheer on the kids who were playing. Their favorite part of the games quickly became the high five line with the other teams at the end of a game, at least showing signs of good sportsmanship.
It might feel a little bit silly to participate in an organized sport at three years old when there is absolutely no chance kids will truly understand their game they’re playing and it certainly wasn’t easy to start giving up weekend time and nights for games and practices this early in their lives, but I very glad we did. Even if they learned nothing about playing soccer, at least they learned about making new friends, that exercise is fun, and the importance of being a part of a team over an individual, all lessons I would gladly pay and give up time for to start building this early. I’m going to enjoy the winter off, but I’ll definitely get them playing again next year.