Building a stronger bond with my daughter through soccer
As President Obama might say, my daughter is a badass. I don't say that just because she's my daughter. As the president did when he met the members of the U.S. women's national soccer team after they won the World Cup last year, I offer that description up in the broadest of terms.
That same term applies to many of my daughter's teammates through years of club soccer that have seen us travel around the South and across the country. I've seen them get knocked down and bounce right back up. I've seen them limp around the field, trying to shake off a twisted ankle to stay in the game. I've seen them suffer difficult losses and play in pouring rain and frigid cold.
I'm glad my daughter, Lucy, is part of it. And I'm glad I have been there to see it.
I am a soccer dad, twice over. My son is in college now, but he also played travel soccer for years. I loved watching him play and seeing his confidence grow as he kept moving up to better teams through the years. But soccer wasn't as critical to my relationship with my son as it has been with my daughter.
We have some differences, she and I. My daughter has a clear sense of fashion, while I shop the clearance rack at Kohl's. She uses her phone for endless snaps and selfies, while I use mine to check sports scores and play Words with Friends. And there are certain areas where conversations between fathers and daughters are tricky at best. Soccer, though, has provided us with a shared experience since she first enjoyed orange slices and juice boxes at halftime and ran through tunnels created by the parents' outstretched arms after games.
I didn't play the game growing up, but I've come to appreciate it and all that it's meant to my kids. Unlike the sports I grew up with, there are no timeouts in soccer. Players have to make hundreds of decisions during a game -- without a coach telling them what to do -- about when and where to pass, when to attack and when to pull back and defend. To have any chance at success, they have to work with and rely on their teammates. It's a game that values speed, technical ability, teamwork, intelligence, stamina, athleticism and the willingness to be physical. (Lucy points with pride to the various bruises and scrapes on her legs, treasuring each one as a memento from various high school and club games.)
But where the game has helped me connect with my daughter is off the field, on the drives to and from practice or the road trips to games and tournaments. We've driven through a West Virginia snowstorm to get to an indoor soccer tournament in Detroit in February, flown to Seattle to play against some of the best teams in the country and spent the holidays in Orlando more times than I care to count. I've rinsed out stinky jerseys and soccer socks in hotel sinks and made late-night runs to get Gatorade. I'm always up for arranging some sort of side trip, having nothing to do with soccer, to check out something interesting in the area.
All that travel translates into great family time -- time to play card games, talk about how school's going or watch HGTV together in the hotel room. Occasionally the talk is about soccer.
One topic of frequent discussion is the U.S. women's national team. We rarely miss a chance to watch them play, even if it's just a friendly on TV. The women on that team are rock stars to my daughter and her teammates, and I will never forget the thrill it was for Lucy when she got a photo with Megan Rapinoe, her favorite player, when the team played in North Carolina a couple of years ago. So while I'm curious to see how Michael Phelps will do in the pool and whether anyone can beat Usain Bolt in the 100 meters, my daughter and I will be most interested in the U.S. women's soccer team as they go after their fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal in Rio later this summer.
I wondered whether the dads of the women on the U.S. national team felt the same as I did about soccer helping their relationship with their daughters. I managed to touch base with Ken Krieger, father of defender Ali Krieger, and Vincent Dunn, father of midfielder and forward Crystal Dunn. Not surprisingly, they also had tales of weekends spent traveling to tournaments and car rides home after games or practices spent listening as their daughters recounted their experience.
Both fathers were most interested in talking about who their daughters have become off the field. "The thing I'm most proud of has absolutely nothing to do with soccer," said Vincent Dunn, a finance attorney in New York. "Crystal is just a genuinely good person. She cares about other people and is a fun person."
Krieger, a former player who has built a long and successful career as a youth soccer and basketball coach in and around Washington, D.C., recounted an experience years ago when his daughter got a chance to see Mia Hamm play. What she remembered from that day was watching Hamm sign autographs for what seemed like hours afterward. She told her father that she would do the same thing one day if she ever got the chance. "I'm usually in the bleachers for an hour after her games," Ken Krieger told me, "waiting for her to finish signing autographs."
My wife and I often talked as our kids moved up (and occasionally down) the ranks of club soccer about how we weren't interested in raising soccer players. We wanted to raise kids who would go on to become good adults. Soccer has been one way to do that, imparting lessons in the value of determination, hard work and sportsmanship.
They've learned how to handle defeat as well as victory. They've learned that the calls don't always go your way and that there's nothing to be gained by complaining about it. They've learned that while sometimes you have to figure things out for yourself, there are other times when you can rely on your teammates or, more importantly, be there for your teammates. Those are lessons that will serve them well long after their playing days are over.
I will also treasure the bonds soccer has helped me build with Lucy. There are plenty of things she would rather talk with her mother about, and I'm OK with that. But we have our own connection, and I will never complain about the money and time our family has spent on soccer.
Bill Krueger is an editor at the alumni magazine at N.C. State University, where U.S. head coach Jill Ellis started her coaching career as a graduate assistant for the Wolfpack women's soccer team.