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“Play Hard”

It was about two months ago, my son’s second last game for the 2020 season of his soccer travel team. I don’t even remember the score of the game, but only our trip back home from the game. The trip was an hour long. But only a few minutes in, I saw my son, from the rear view mirror, was silently weeping in the back seat. I knew he wasn’t hurt in the game and performed okay, from my perspective, – nothing especially good or bad. But I did notice that his coach had a short conversation with him during a substitution.

“What’s going on, Eric?

I wasn’t much concerned, but actually a bit annoyed to be honest, since it would be a loooong drive home if I had to deal with a moody kid at the meantime.

“My coach told me not to come back play anymore.”

Eric answered.

“WHAT?!” I didn’t expect to hear something like this. I don’t consider Eric is exceptional in his team, but he is certainly not “weak” either. He is strong in defending position, he passes accurate balls, he supports his teammates selfishlessly. Overall, he is not a star, but he is a value contributor and a great team player. In no way I would expect his coach said something like that.

“What happened?” I know there is more to this story.

“Coach said that I wasn’t doing my best, he wanted me to play hard. He said if I did not play hard next time, don’t come back play.”

Eric was still weeping…

Aha. Now I know what was going on. While watching Eric play, I had a similar observation that Eric wasn’t competing. He didn’t pursue the ball aggressively, he avoided physical contact with his opponent, he always seemed to be one second slower reaching to the ball than the other kid, and he rarely showed the will to “get the foot in” while the kids were fighting for the ball, and in a one-to-one situation, he rarely “won” the ball as a result.

It’s not like Eric has any kind of physical disadvantage, mind you. Eric is a normal-sized boy, and is strong and fast. Physically, he CAN compete; but mentally, he DOESN’T WANT to compete, because he wants to stay safe; and this is who he is! In a way, I agree to his coach’s feedback to some extent. What his coach was saying essentially was that “Eric, you can do more to be more competitive.” I wouldn’t judge Eric though by accusing him that he didn’t “play hard”. He did, and I know it.

This is why Eric was weeping, as he must have felt that the coach wasn’t fair to him.

But the coach wasn’t wrong either.

Seeing Eric was still upset, I parked the car and had a conversation with him.

“Eric, Coach Nick didn’t mean to get you out of the team. He was just frustrated and using ‘threat’ as a technique to motivate you do better next time. Remember a couple of years back you and I had a similar talk? I was like, Eric, do you still want to play soccer? If you don’t try harder, we don’t have to do soccer anymore. I was similarly frustrated at that time, as Coach Nick was today and I even used a similar threat. But you are still playing soccer, aren’t you? Both Coach Nick and I are trying to get you improve in a game; there is no other intent.”

It was a long conversation, but eventually Eric got the point and we had a smooth ride back home.

But I won’t let this lesson just got wasted. “Play hard” now is a key phrase both Eric and I understand for its true meaning.

Eric is such a caring and sensitive kid. Competition of any kind stresses him. He wants everyone to be happy, and often with his friends, he could go as far as giving up his own will to please the others. I told him many times that this characteristic of his is the best gift of his. I don’t see he would ever short of friends in his future life because of it. However, I don’t want him to be a “push-over” either, and this is where I have been working with him all these years (and being frustrated all these years at the meantime 😀), and now somehow, through his soccer, I found an “entry point” that I can really bring this concept to his heart: competition isn’t bad and competition can help him win more friends (through his contribution to his team).

Last Saturday Eric and I were on the road again to another soccer game. In the car, I went,

“Eric, there is only one thing I ask you to do in this game: PLAY HARD.”

He understood. During the game, he stole a ball from the goalie and scored, which required a true “competition”. His coach let him stayed in the field for most of the game and he played center-back, striker, and winger on both left and right. He also assisted three other goals.

His team finally won 6:5 in a tough game.

On the way home, we again had a conversation in the car, although was in a much relaxing way.

I went,

“Eric, I can see you played hard. You were everywhere in the field. You helped the team win. Let me say this: When you played real hard, you contributed more to your team, and as a result, you received more respect from your teammates; and more importantly, you made a difference!

Eric, as who he is, being modest and all, still didn’t want to receive all the credit that I gave him; but he knows what a true difference he has made to this game.

I can tell because he was in a great mood during the entire trip back home.

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