Not Bending It Like Beckham

Daniel has had three soccer classes, and they have been by turns hysterical, frustrating and mortifying.

Hmm. This grass is interesting!

The Hysterical

Imagine 32 3-year-olds and six coaches.  It’s like herding cats. They divide them into groups to maximize the potential to focus, but you still usually have 2 or 3 kids in each group running off in opposite directions as the coaches try to organize them into a line or coax them into chasing after the ball.  And the grass and occasional weed on the field often prove to be too tempting.  Why pay attention to the coach when you can pick a flower?  Better yet, pick the flower and offer it to the coach! Each child has his or her own soccer ball and during one activity, the coaches tried to get the kids to run down the field, grab a ball and run the other way.  That plan backfired because the children only wanted their individual ball, and the activity stalled as the children pawed over every ball, oblivious to the shouts of the coaches to pick up any ball.

The fields also have cones marking off certain areas, and those cones are irresistible.  The first week, Daniel wanted to pick them up and move them.  The second week, he and several other children wore them like hats.  The parents are supposed to remain on the sidelines and usually we are doubled over, laughing.  Each session has a carnival-like atmosphere, with coolers, folding chairs and parents, grandparents and siblings watching and chatting.  I am amazed at the patience the coaches have with this age group as they try to teach them a skill or have them go where they need to be (usually without much success).

Who says you can’t use hands?

The Frustrating

Soccer has been very eye-opening for us.  Daniel says he likes it, but he is not doing a good job of paying attention to what is going on around him, acknowledging that he hears or following directions. He delights in doing his own thing, often running off in the other direction or losing interest in the activity after kicking his ball once or twice.  He’ll frequently stop what he’s doing and come running over to us with a big smile on his face.  We urge him repeatedly to return to the circle and sit on his ball, follow the other kids, etc., but it doesn’t help much.    It’s especially frustrating because the majority of the children manage to stay on task and follow directions, so to us, it seems that Daniel’s desire to do his own thing is especially noticeable.

I know. He’s 3.  I know.  This team is for kids who won’t turn 4 before August 1, 2012, so there is a good chance that a many of the kids on his team are closer to turning 4 and that age difference is a lot different developmentally than a child who turned 3 in June.  Maybe they’ve also participated in soccer before because they all seem to know what they are doing.  Maybe our expectations for him are too high.  It’s not like he is the only one who is zigging while everyone else zags.  A couple of kids cling to their parents and watch.  We observed (happily) another child appearing to cast spells with a plastic fork while spinning in circles last night.  We like that he has spirit, energy and personality, but sometimes we wish he’d conform just a little.  It also doesn’t help that soccer is on weeknights after not napping at day care and before he’s eaten.  I don’t think that it’s at the best time for him to be able to focus, but that was the only session they had. And seeing him in group settings makes me wonder whether he’s just socially immature or if there’s something else is going on.

Daniel’s the one lagging behind, focusing on stepping on a cone.

The Mortifying

Daniel in a group setting with other children can be unpredictable right now.  The first session he was fascinated by a bigger girl and kept chasing her and bumping into her until she started to cry.  It was like he stalked her.  Then he turned around and bopped a little boy.  When he sits with the other children, he will invade their space and try to pat them and nudge them.  We spend the hour watching him closely and trying to defuse the situation if he gets too handsy.  It’s exhausting and so embarrassing because our child is not only not following directions but also bothering the other children. Accurately or not, I feel like the other parents are thinking, “their child is a problem child.” I don’t like what we turn into either.  We hiss at him to behave, to leave the other children alone.  We hiss at him, “Do you want to go home?  If not, you need to listen to watch the coach is saying.”  We turn into cold disciplinarians, and I simultaneously wonder if the other parents think we are being too hard on him or not hard enough.  And Daniel will look at us like he’s trying to figure out where these hard-asses came from.

And then yesterday’s session came.  Of course it’s one thing for you to feel frustrated by your child’s behavior but quite another for anyone else to say anything.  Yesterday was picture day.  Daniel did well for his individual picture but the team picture was a bit of a nightmare.  Lining up 32 kids would be.  After what seemed like an eternity, three rows of children were somewhat neatly arranged.  Daniel was in the back row and supposed to be standing but often bobbing up and down.  The photographer was ready to take the picture, and the coaches were trying to keep Daniel standing up and facing the camera.  You know, doing what all the other kids were doing.  Finally, exasperated, the photographer said, “If I had my Ritalin with me, I’d give you some.”

I was so embarrassed that it took me a minute to realize what the photographer had said.  Was he voicing what everyone else was thinking?  That our child was too hyper and needed medicating?  That his poor impulse control is more than being a three-year-old?

The team picture finally taken, everyone left.  Daniel, sundowning from no nap, started to cry because he didn’t want to leave.  He wanted to stay and play soccer.  We strapped in our poor little boy and then Jimmy went to talk to the photographer about his comment.  We drove home, Daniel crying and me wondering if we were expecting too much and hating that I felt so disappointed and frustrated with our sweet boy.

Maybe soccer’s not his sport.  Maybe we should look into hockey; he could be an enforcer.

The infamous team picture; note the head coach holding Daniel’s arms.


  1. The Montessori school where my son went refused to do group activities for kids under age 4 for this reason … because of the variability of their behavior. I think it’s miraculous that the coaches can get these kids to do anything. And honestly? Maybe some of the other kids ARE medicated, which is why they seem to behave so much “better.” I’m no expert, but I wonder if it’s too early to make that kind of judgement … ? To me, the more important thing right now, during this transition, is that he’s having fun and learning about expectations. just my $.02.

  2. We had the same experience with soccer with both of my boys, not just Alex (who does happen to have ADHD). There is something about group energy and dynamics at this age where some kids do great and some kids do not. It was extremely painful and left us with the “what is wrong with my kids???” feeling. Ironically, Nate was much worse than Alex with soccer.

    I will tell you, there might not be anything wrong. After school with no nap? Recipe for disaster. We tried twice, 6 months apart, with no improvement and decided we wouldn’t participate in group activities. It is supposed to be FUN – instead it was just us full of anxiety and constantly telling them to STOP!

    As for ADHD and meds, to Justine’s point above, most of the meds are not even approved for kids under age 6. Many places will not diagnose children until age 6 or above because children 6 and under act like they have ADHD bc they lack impulse control and have short attention spans. It’s just that some children are naturally calm rule followers and some just have a lot of energy.

    Finally, as a photographer, I will tell you that wiggly children are NORMAL. It’s the photographer’s job to keep kids engaged and enjoying it. Anyone who’s had a shoot with me will tell you that I have a little stuffed lion I use to make noises, get kids’ attention, balance it on my head, throw at kids, etc bc children WILL NOT just stand there and smile perfectly for the camera.

    It sucks but I will tell you, we waited until our kids were more mature until doing more group sports and I am glad for that. Even so, 6 year old basketball after school? CHAOTIC and no one sits still and no one pays attention.

  3. I was told by a kids’ soccer coach and a father of three boys not to start soccer until four or later for exactly this reason. He said any younger and they just aren’t ready for it. He described soccer for 3-year-olds exactly as you did: “herding cats”. I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Truly, the timing can be everything as well. If it’s close to dinner and either of my boys haven’t napped, the mania is apparent. So the time of day might contribute to Daniel’s lack of focus as much as anything. I think that biochemically, tired and hungry bodies excrete large amounts of adrenaline to provide needed energy. That can translate to lots of fidgeting and lack of focus as well as irritability.

    Anyway, I totally relate to the extra stress that one feels in the presence of other parents. There’ve been times when I’ve felt like I’ve been fodder for the parental peanut gallery, but I’m not sure how much of that is based on other parents’ actual reactions and how much of it is based on my own feelings of embarrassment.

    I comfort myself by guessing that probably all parents feel under the microscope at these type things. I mean, really, none of us ever really know when our kids will just lose all capacity to reason and start acting like jackasses. I imagine that most parents there aren’t looking at Daniel and wondering what’s wrong with him or you. I bet if any of them are having thoughts about it, it’s that they’re relieved that their kid didn’t choose the soccer practice to act that way because they KNOW their kid is just as capable of exactly the same behavior. All three-year-olds act that way. It’s just sometimes we luck out, and they don’t do it in public, but ALL of us have had it happen in front of a crowd.

    Regarding group activities for kids, I’ve taken Will to Little Gym, and it was okay, but in the end, I think we’ll hold off on the organized group activities for a year or two. Now that Will’s in preschool, he gets plenty of time with his peers, and he seems to be more happy and active playing in the yard with his brother and dad than he did when he was waiting his turn for the trampoline with a group of kids at Little Gym. This past summer, I felt really strongly that he should start organized activities like sports and music, but after this summer, I feel like I just want to let him play and enjoy being at home. In other words, I wouldn’t blame you if you dropped out of soccer and decided to wait a year or so. Nonetheless, if it’s overall a fun experience, I think you should keep doing it and don’t worry what everyone’s thinking (easier said than done, I know.) Good luck!

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