08/23/2013 12:05 EDT | Updated 11/18/2013 11:50 EST

Does My Son Need a Soccer Dad?

When you're a harried working parent, you sometimes need to add to your plate to give yourself more time. You pile on one more commitment because that's the only way you can see yourself through to the goal of doing less. And no matter how little sense that may seem to make, it often works.

That was the calculation that led me to volunteer to co-coach my six-year-old son's soccer team this summer. My thinking was that if I was one of only two coaches, I'd have no choice but to consistently drop what I'm doing at work and show up on time at the park for that weekly hour-and-a-half of running around with my little boy (and nine others). And although I'm not proud it takes this kind of external obligation to get me where I should be, I'm happy to say that is has been effective.

For the past seven Tuesday evenings, I've been out there on the field with my clipboard, cheering on Team France, shouting "spread out!," helping the guys through their drills (they're better at dribbling than I am but sometimes need assistance distinguishing left from right), and generally learning what sport looks like from the perspective of 10 young men freshly graduated from kindergarten.

And it turns out that what it looks like is quite different from what I expected.

When I thought about coaching six-year-olds, I assumed what they'd need would be encouragement and direction. When they were using the tip of their foot to kick the ball, I'd remind them to use the inside. When they made a good pass, I'd shout, "Good job!" When they fell, I'd help them brush themselves off.

In reality, I've found the boys' needs to be less straightforward. For one thing, they are unexpectedly (to me) focused on winning. At their age level, the club does not keep score during games, but this is fooling no one. All the kids keep an ongoing mental tally of goals and shout it out at regular intervals, joyously if they're winning, and bitterly if they're not. Almost every one of them is fiercely competitive -- at once prideful and insecure about his own abilities. And the discussions I've found myself involved in have far more to do with ethics, attitude, and sportsmanship than I would ever have thought necessary for children still unable to do up their own shoelaces.

Kid On My Team: So-and-so is the worst goalie in the world.

Me: You guys are a team. Does it help the team when you make one of your teammates feel bad? Is that working together?

Kid On My Team: They're beating us by FOUR goals and they're making fun of us. They're soooooooooo much better than us.

Me: It does look like they've practiced a lot, but part of being a good athlete is treating the people you play against with respect. They're not better than this team when it comes to sportsmanship.

Kid On My Team: If you put me in goal, we'll lose because I'm the only one on on this team who can score.

Me: Everyone's getting a turn in goal. Maybe this will be a good chance for your teammates to practice their shooting.

And so on and so forth.

I'm not sure if I'm saying the right thing. Or if what I'm saying is helping. And it does have a saccharin ring to it that irritates me. But it also feels to me like the only thing I can say in good conscience in response to what I'm hearing. Which makes it all the more difficult when I notice that the teams whose kids are making fun of mine, and snapping at each other, and doing a little extra shoving and pushing on the field -- the teams that presumably are not having these June-Cleaverish chats about teamwork and gamesmanship -- really are doing soooooooooo much better than us.

So am I helping the boys that I'm coaching? Or am I saddling them with mommy truisms that have no useful place in the world of male sport, even when the "men" concerned haven't even grown into their kiddie goalie gloves?

I love that I'm getting to spend more time with my son. But I've developed a nagging doubt about whether I'm actually denying him an important opportunity to be coached by a parent -- a dad, I feel almost certain -- who's as focused on winning and aggressively competitive play as these boys seem naturally to be.

I'm sure that somewhere out there in the world of pee-wee soccer there is a coach who has found that balance between motivating the boys to play hard enough to succeed, while still convincing them of the importance of respecting each other and playing clean. But I haven't met that coach yet. And as the games have passed, and the season has progressed, I've come to the disappointing realization that it won't ever be me.

Which is okay. I have plenty of valuable things to offer my son, and our shared experience of learning how young boys contend with each other on the soccer field is one of them. I just never imagined how much of that learning would be mine.


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