I spent my entire weekend at a soccer tournament.
With two daughters involved in two different brackets, Saturday included seven hours and four games, Sunday a whopping TEN hours and five games. My feet have blisters. My face resembles a chic raccoon, ringed as my eyes are with perfect sunglass circles.
I love soccer. I have written of this addiction of mine before. I spend my weekends on the sidelines cheering. I manage not one, but two teams, juggling logistics and communications like an Army Ranger. I spend evenings mainlining Fox Soccer Channel like a heroin junkie. Name an international player, I can tell you not only his country team, but his club team and position. My MLS loyalty to the FC Dallas has less to do with their stadium being within 15 minutes of the last home I lived in, and more to do with watching the guys compete and improve from the 3rd row of that stadium.
But as grand as is the Premier Soccer picked up by the dish attached to my roofline, or as exciting as is the reach-out-and-touch nearness of my MLS boys, they are all usurped when it comes to the inspiration of watching a group of ten year olds and a group of 13/14 year olds play their hearts out for two days straight.
My youngest daughter plays for an Academy team – in lay terms, that means her skills have taken her beyond mere recreational play, but the family is not quite ready for the life altering leap into the Select leagues.
My middle daughter, only recently turned 13, plays up with the 14 year old girls on a rec team. She is tiny, but she is tenacious, earning the respect of the older girls with her relentless drive to defend.
Both of my daughters play with groups of girls they did not know two months ago. In fact, most of the girls on each team did not know one another two months ago. Both teams being brand new.
That’s why this tournament is worth writing about.
My 10 year old’s team has come together, as friends off the field, as trusting teammates on the field - learning one another’s unique skills, communicating with a look, a gesture, a single word.
Off the field, they are what you would expect – goofy, happy, fun loving, silly little girls. They love lipgloss, earrings, and have recently discovered that boys might offer more to the world than cooties.
On the field though, it is easy to forget you are watching children. These ten year olds (in fact, some are still only 9), dominated their first two games of the tournament, turning in shut-outs both times. Their third game placed them across the midline from a team who had beaten them a month ago 6-2.
In a testament to their dedication not only to the game and improving their skills, but to one another – they held that team to a single goal, losing 1-0, but still advancing into the semifinals where they faced a team from within their own Academy – the best team in their own Academy, actually.
Though they lost 3-0, I believe they won something more important than an advancement in the standings. They reaped the rewards that only come with gelling as a team and trusting the seven other people sharing the field with you – CONFIDENCE. Confidence in themselves, confidence in each other, confidence that they can do even better next time around.
My middle daughter’s team is amazing. Not just because they have such a winning record, having only lost one regular season game. But because these 18 girls, with disparate soccer backgrounds all, have gone from complete strangers to teammates and FRIENDS in the space of less than three months.
This tournament poured cement over all of that – setting it for the long haul.
You see, a tournament is as much a test of endurance, as it is of skill. Players feed off the energy from one another, and adrenaline propels them from one game where they give their all, to the next less than three hours later, where they again summon energy from God-knows-where, and do it all again.
They did this THREE times yesterday. On the field to warm up at 830am, they did not leave the fields until after 6pm last night. Winning the first game that placed them into the semifinals, then winning the semifinal, which placed them into the Championship Game.
Honestly, I was exhausted from just watching them play.
As the final playoff time drew near, these girls all came back together and formed a spontaneous big blue clump on the sidelines. No one told them to gather together. It wasn’t time to warm up. No one was doing a head count.
They simply gravitated to one another, pulled by camaraderie, pulled by trust, pulled by wanting to be with the girls who had their backs on the field, who made them laugh off the field.
I watched as they laughed, made up nicknames for one another – everything from “Leaky” (don’t ask) to “Giggles” (self explanatory) – and bonded over the impending fight they would be having in the final game.
I knew from checking the standings that the team they were facing was formidable. But then, so are my girls. I knew it was a soccer game that was going to go down to a single goal – it was just a question of which team would be able to pull it off.
And that’s what I find so inspiring about this game. Teams will run relentlessly for over an hour, seeking one breakaway, setting up one cross, that will insure a single goal victory.
And all it takes is one.
Soccer is a funny sport. It is also an inclusive sport. You may not be the fastest. You don’t have to be the biggest. A team is made up of people with unique skills, with positions that allow for each person to thrive and find their comfort level.
But even the best player in the world cannot win the game alone. It takes effort, dedication, and trust for a team to take that little ball and help it find its way through eleven competitors and into the back of the net.
The game was nerve-racking from beginning to end. Partly because you could feel your own heart bleeding for the girls who you knew were bone tired, but playing with every ounce of energy they could summon. But also because the opposing team was the kind you hate to see take the field.
Coached to play dirty. Coached to play mean. Coached to get away with whatever you can get away with – just don’t let the ref catch you. Tripping, shoving, swearing, cleating (my own daughter wore an ACE bandage and a limp to school today as accessories).
My girls never retaliated or stooped that low. At 13 and 14, they showed a restraint and sportsmanship not seen in many adult players.
And they lost 1-0.
But they lost cleanly. And as I have told them, I would always rather see them leave the field with a clean loss, rather than a dirty win.
Tears were shed. Hugs were passed from one to another. And then, they all came together again for the trophy ceremony – SMILING, making one another laugh, being there for each other off the field as firmly as they had been in the game. And they stayed and cheered as trophies were presented to the team who had just beaten them. A class act, period.
I don’t know what the future holds for the teams. More wins? More losses? More laughs? More tears? But I do know one thing…
There are 12 little girls called Advantage, and 18 big girls called the Wolverines – and in the space of one weekend, they showed me more heart, grit, and friendship than most people experience in a lifetime.
And for that, they are all my new heroes.