Smile Politely

A Real Soccer Mom

I admit it. I’m a soccer mom. But not the kind you are thinking of: not a mom who loves to watch her kids play soccer, driving them around town in a minivan for that purpose, but a mom who loves to play soccer. I started playing in high school, back in the 1980’s when girls were first getting turned on to soccer.

I played at Indiana University for a few years, mainly second-string, but still a travel player, and we went to tournaments across the country. After graduate school, I played year-round recreational soccer for many years with the Illinois Women’s’ Soccer League in Chicago. I can still remember the wild soccer parties, the astro-turf rug burns, the ebb and flow of action up and down the field, predicting patterns as a midfielder, feeding the ball in just the right way to create plays, the missed penalty kicks, the smell of Jackson Park south of the Museum of Science and Industry, the teammates I’m still in touch with…soccer was a huge part of my life, like music and books.

But no longer. It isn’t that I don’t love to play anymore. I do. But here in Champaign County, 42-year-old women with three kids just don’t seem to play soccer, not that I have seen. They sit on the sideline in camp chairs with a cooler full of juice boxes or they arrange end-of-the-season pizza parties. Sometimes they play co-rec softball on Sunday nights, or bowl in a league, or go to book club. But they don’t play soccer.

This whole situation makes me terribly sad. So when my ten-year-old son’s new soccer coach asked for parents to help out during practices, I happily dusted off my cleats and jogged out onto the field along with several dads.

One of the first exercises was the adults vs. kids game, a required element in almost all kids sporting experiences. I guess I had forgotten how, during my brief stint on a co-ed adult soccer team, men sometimes “forgot” to pass to me. Not always. But sometimes. And I guess I wasn’t prepared for the name-calling later in the practice. Again, not what folks might think constitutes name-calling. But the way the boys would jostle each other in line and push kids in front of them, teasing them by saying “Ladies first!” Or the way the boys wouldn’t look at me when I would suggest a strategy or a play. Or the way I would be assigned to work with the same particular group of boys, who, to put it politely, probably had more talent in the field of radio-wave astrophysics than in soccer.

It was clear I was up against something formidable, perhaps even more pronounced here than in other parts of the country. I remembered how a few years back, when I volunteered to coach my daughter’s co-ed team (I had, after all, coached youth soccer for six years on Chicago’s north side), my name was somehow “misplaced” from the coach’s list. The male coach assigned to her team that year was, I believe, an ex-marine and venture capitalist. That was the last year she really wanted to play soccer (we’ve since talked her back into the game).

Perhaps it’s just coincidental, and I’m jumping to conclusions. But even if I’m not, I talk to my son about these kinds of things; he’s a smart kid and recognizes all sorts of prejudices and bias (“At my new school, the popular kids are all different colors, not just the kids with blue eyes and blond hair like at my other school”), so why should I worry then? I will keep pointing these things out to my kids, keep coming out to practices, and all will be well, I guess. But last week, at the end of practice, with the dads and I standing around, the coach gave the boys a pep-talk, something about the opponent this week being really tough, so tough that there is even a girl on the team who is big enough to push them around. And all the boys laughed. Even my son.

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