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Soccer widow: Just play

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 18, 2010 - In my garage, a bucket is filled with stuff for my son to play with. There's a tiny plastic golf club and a tiny plastic ball, a small basketball that has quite a bounce, and soccer balls. Lots and lots of soccer balls.

Some are peeling, some passed down from family members, some found at garage sales, some once used by my husband for games of his own.

He and our son, Max, kick the ball around in our yard often, but any attempt by me to get the two of them into one of the local soccer programs is met with a sneer.

You don't teach soccer formally, my husband says. You get on the field and you play. You watch matches. You don't do drills.

When I was growing up, my dad used to complain to my mom that we were in lessons for everything: singing, dancing, swimming, piano, tennis, manners. When did we just play?

I did enjoy most of my lessons (hated piano, hated manners). And now that I have a kid of my own, it is tempting to outsource the activities. We have taken music classes together, and we're currently in a tumbling class.

But I see my husband's point, too. You learn by doing, not by learning.

At some point since the World Cup started, I heard someone tell a story that let me know my husband (who I'll remind you is from Guyana, South America) is not the only one who feels this way. The dad in the story was foreign-born, kept his kids in baseball but refused to let them play soccer because he didn't like how it was taught here.

It makes me wonder, are we really teaching soccer differently in the U.S.?

CBC Dutch School

"Absolutely, 100 percent different," says Terry Michler, the soccer coach at CBC. Michler's been in that role for more than 30 years, and he's the winningest high school soccer coach in the country.

He also thinks we're doing some things wrong here.

"There are two big differences to me that I see," Michler says. "One is that we emphasize winning as soon as they start playing, and that changes everything."

Because of that, kids aren't taught soccer in appropriate stages as they develop, and they aren't able to develop passion for the game.

That's really what it's all about, Michler says, not about winning, or getting scholarships to college, or amassing championship titles (of which Michler's players have all done three).

It's about loving the game.

Michler didn't come to his conclusions about how to coach and teach soccer all on his own. It started in 1997 after a coaching symposium in the Netherlands, and thanks to many trips back, Michler's developed CBC's Dutch Touch program. Each school year, he coaches a team that dominates high school soccer. And each summer, he trains coaches and offers an international soccer camp. Behind his philosophy is something very simple -- helping kids get as much enjoyment out of soccer as they can.

In his most recent training for coaches, a young man from Uruguay was there.

What did you love about soccer growing up? Michler asked him.

It was cheap, the man said, you didn't need a lot of equipment.

No, Michler said, what did you love about it?

"He finally just said, 'it was passion, man. That's all you do'."

Nurture the Love

The minute Michler said that, a giant, soccer-shaped light bulb clicked on for me. My husband wants our son to learn soccer, but naturally, like he did, out on the field with a few other kids, learning as they go. He wants him to want to play soccer, and he knows that formalizing things, making them a requirement, especially for kids, can kill the joy.

So you just play and watch and understand the complexities when you're ready.

I know it's how my husband's developed his passion for the game. It explains why he'll leave our home at 11 p.m. to play a match with his team, why he'll get up at 6:30 every weekend morning during the World Cup to watch the early game, and why he'll bring our son along with him.

It's also why, at some point, I know our family vacations will be built around places where we can see his favorite teams -- Barcelona, Munich and Manchester are on the top of the list.

Michler didn't have any real advice about what we should do now, or even in a few years as our son gets older.

Kids' soccer in St. Louis is an institution, and even Michler's grandsons are a part of it.

But talking to him made me realize that my husband is right (please don't tell him I said so, though.)

For Father's Day, I was toying with the idea of signing him and Max up for a little soccer league. Now, I'm thinking I'll just buy them a new ball, open the back door and watch what happens.

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