MY DAUGHTER HAS BEEN on the same soccer team since she was six. Every year her skills have improved, even as her mother has remained a benchwarmer at the game of spectating. At the final whistle of one late-season match last year I broke away from my absorbing conversation with our star striker’s little sister—about the unbelievableness of Trader Joe’s dark chocolate pretzels, about what Bradley Cooper really sees in Renée Zellweger—to blurt, “Who won?” Every parental head on the sidelines whipped around in disbelief.
“Who won?” my fellow soccer mom Wynne asked incredulously, though she should have known by then that I’m not exactly made of killer instincts. For her part the aptly pseudonymed Wynne tracks every last touch and assist. She wants nothing more than a triumphant season. Wants it for her daughter, wants it for herself—hard to say where the former ends and the latter begins among the rabidly competitive parents overrepresented on the sidelines of the high-achieving soccer teams known as “select.”
Where rec teams accept every comer, select teams are filled via competitive tryouts. They feature trained coaches, costlier commitments, and matches in other counties, even states. My kid’s whole team went select a couple seasons ago—sort of a neighborhood-based, farm-team version we parents proudly disparage as “select lite.” So we fancy ourselves a little saner than the neurotically competitive parents we see going red in the face on the sidelines of other select matches.
This season, changes in the select league have left those faces something closer to bloody maroon. Last spring the governing body for soccer in Seattle, the Seattle Youth Soccer Association, reorganized Seattle’s select teams, uniting all the kids from disparate leagues into a single league called Seattle United. SYSA held that the consolidation was meant to unify and streamline—but instead it ignited ferocious controversy among parents who felt that the shift away from the premier select league, the Emerald City Football Club, would compromise their child’s best interests.
The reorg, of course, has gotten the parents even more invested in the matches this season, as they’re now more than athletic contests; they’re proving grounds for parents’ worst fears. And you thought select soccer parents were overinvolved before.
Whether Seattle United will serve my child’s best interests I too am looking to answer. But to be frank—and please don’t tell Wynne I said this—I’m not sure what those best interests are. Sure, we’ve told our kids since they could kick a ball that it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game. The reason we have to tell them that in the first place is winning is so obviously the desired end. We’d all rather win than lose. Duh.
But standing on the select sidelines has born in me a startling heresy I’m not keen to say out loud: Winning is not my highest goal for my child.
I’m not talking about excellence here. The skill of her coaches and teammates is why we went select in the first place. But athletic mastery is achievable with hard work in a way that athletic victory only might be. Parents keen on raising goal-oriented children know that winning is a maddening whim of the fates, subject to vagaries that may have nothing to do with work. A teammate’s good night’s sleep. An opponent’s bad burrito.