September 4, 2009

Lesson: Sometimes it's best to think like a kid

I started my son in soccer when he was three as a means to get exercise and make friends; I also wanted him to begin to understand the basics of team-work. I suppose that last one was a lofty goal for a pre-schooler, but hey, I had good intentions.

I’m pretty proud of him too; he's learned a lot in his 3 seasons of playing. This past spring he even began to understand how important it was to “assist” another team member who had the ball - that is instead of pulverizing his own team-mate, climbing over him so that my son could “make a goal”. Note, I did not say that my son gets this all the time, but there was a particularly proud moment or two when I saw the little light bulb flicker on in his bean. Ahhh - very wise young grasshopper… You have begun to understand the power of helping your team-mate!

The best part about his soccer experience is that I have been able to be a part of it. That wasn't by choice initially; I actually led the team because a coach was over 15 minutes late for three of our five sessions. Fifteen minutes out of a 45-minute session is an eternity for preschool children. So one morning after waiting an eternity, I turned to the team of 14 little faces and said “Let’s go!” I’d seen the drills, and watched the games for two seasons, so why not, right? I didn’t really have to know much about soccer at that stage anyway.

Fast forward to this past spring. After “coaching” for two seasons, I considered myself a natural. I knew that at the first game, someone would cry, someone would be found picking (grass/flowers/mud/bugs - take your pick) and I knew enough to tell the parents to make sure their child used the port-a-potty before coming onto the field, because it was a l-o-n-g walk from where the kids actually played. I also knew that as a coach of 3-5 year-olds there were three basic - And I do mean basic - concepts of the game I could hopefully teach my team, and expect them to slightly absorb:

1) Teach them which net was their goal. This was often loosely interpreted.

2) Teach them to kick the ball with our feet and not use hands.

3) And teach each child that there is a line around the field that is out-of-bounds where play must stop.

I’ll admit, I knew that my third rule was a tough one to absorb, however considering the many games we played where the team ended up making the play over, and Over, and OVER because a child kept kicking the ball out of bounds, I figured it was a lesson worth learning early. Besides, none of the parents wanted to duck for cover as eight kicking, screaming children attacked the ball en-mass.

I tried breaking the lessons into smaller bites to help the kids absorb the messages, but that didn’t help - Especially the final rule. That's when it hit me square between the eyes: think like a 3-year-old!

My son and daughter love to play a game they call “hot lava”, where they jump from couch, to the coffee table, to chair, to the… "whatever", in an attempt to avoid stepping on the floor. I am pretty sure most of us played a variation of that game growing up. In remembering that one game though, it reminded me that what is interesting to a preschooler or makes them stop to “think” is different than what drives adults. It was then that my third lesson of “what is out of bounds” became “hot lava”. Why? Because the kids understood that lava was hot and could burn you. It didn’t matter that they had never experienced it, or seen actual lava — they just knew.
I felt particularly proud that day too, it’s always nice when an idea that clicks with us as parents also resonates with children. I suppose as parents we could use this same phrase any time you want your children to stop and “think” - I’ll stick with helping my son learn the “hot lava" soccer lesson though and enjoy my moment of parental brilliance! I know I'll need it in years to come...

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