My big-enough-to-be-a-second-grader son, who is in kindergarten, plays flag football. It’s his first season. He is in the youngest division, Division D. This division stretches from kindergarten to second grade. When I signed him up, I had visions of cute little boys in a circle tossing the ball around to each other, fumbling often and having fun. Mind you, he’s our first boy to play team sports and I’m a total rookie when it comes to sports in general.
It came as a shock to me when I was informed by his rather disappointed sounding coach that he, and another player, were the only kindergarteners among the vast sea of second graders on the team. That’s a pretty wide age range.
I had no idea, that even in second grade, these little boys would be so capable of playing the game of football. Able to catch long shots, while glancing over their shoulder and thundering toward the end zone. Fast and determined to run after the ball. Confident and skilled. They were like mini pros, while my little dude was learning to catch the ball. It was intimidating…for me.
Up until a few months ago, my kid had wanted nothing to do with sports. We’d tried signing him up for a parent and child sports class, back when he was two or three. After a few classes of hiding behind a large tree, saying he hated coaches, we decided to drop the class. No sense in forcing the issue, obviously he wasn’t ready and we didn’t want to make a big deal of it. Over the years, my husband would try to get him to play catch, attend sporting events, watch games on tv. We kept asking if he was ready. Nope.
Then there was the day that he changed his mind. Our 6’5″ neighbor kid, who happens to be one of the stars of the local football team, asked him what sports he played. He went on to say that at my son’s age, he played every sport he could. I noticed my kid watching and listening to this gentle giant intently. Later, when we were inside, my son, very seriously, and in a hushed voice, said, “Mommy, I want you to sign me up for every sport”. SCORE! I swallowed my outward enthusiasm, afraid he might change his mind if he saw that he had just given us what we’d dreamed of since learning that I was pregnant with our first boy.
My mind buzzed with possibility. Would he be a football star one day, like Daddy was in high school? Michael Phelps, Jr.? Would he follow in Grandpa’s footsteps with basketball? Maybe sport a speedo and be a water polo hunk? Take on Tiger Woods?
Not that I thought he’d suddenly — after years of preferring playground equipment at parks and driving small plastic trucks through heaps of mud, mutilating snails and worms instead of playing catch in the grassy field — become a standout player. Ok, maybe I did think that because of his larger than average build and height, he’d naturally take to the game of football. Well, I was mistaken. Turns out that if you don’t start playing football while your child is still in diapers, they’re doomed for Division D success.
Worried that he’d realize he wasn’t in the same league as most of his older teammates, we asked him if he was having fun. He said he loved it! He was having a great time at practice. Nobody noticed he was younger based on his size, that’s for sure. He seemed unphased about the gap. As I white knuckled it while watching practices, I was able to take solice in the fact that he was enjoying himself out there. Then, it was game time.
It was immediately apparent that the “good” players played most of the time, while the others made brief appearances to appease the parents. My kid has been benched so often during the games that he’s begun to notice. At one point, as he was yanked from the field again, he said, “I know I messed up again, that’s why I have to sit out again”. Really? Seriously? He is five years old. Is the coach really that concerned with winning? Aren’t we, at this age, discouraged from even keeping score?
The American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) seems to have the right idea. Its philosophy is “everyone plays”. AYSO believes that “every player on every team must play at least 50 percent of every game”. No child wants to be the team bench warmer. Kids learn to love (or hate) different sports during these younger, formative years. In fact, my little football player is also an AYSO soccer player. His coach cycles each player out evenly and fairly during each game. There are two pretty impressive players, who are rotated out no less than the less World Cup bound players.
My hope is that sitting on the bench, at the tender age of 5, will not extinguish the new spark of love that he has for this game. I pray that he is resilient enough to try again next season. By the time he is a second grader, he just might be able to catch one of those long passes. Maybe he’ll even make a touchdown or two. Right now, we love watching him play. We love that he thinks he’s pretty darn amazing out there, even if he is just learning to catch the ball.
As he requested I’ve begun signing him up for “every sport”. Well, maybe not every sport, but we’re certainly on a roll. He recently made the swim team and plays on a soccer and football team. Looks like he’s trying little league in Spring. After playing water polo “splash ball” he’s excited to sign up for that again too. His enthusiasm for trying all these new sports is contagious.