When my daughter, who is a skilled and dedicated soccer play in her own right, saw the level of intensity exhibited by young kids playing soccer in a pick-up game in Ouakam, she quickly commented that few if any of the players she knew back home would step foot onto the sand lot to join in. “They look like they’re trying to qualify for the World Cup,” she said. “And it’s not even a real game.”
Except, of course, that it was far more real than many of the games she’d played in. There were no parents. No coaches. Somebody’s older brother was the referee (though his role was mostly to break up fights). The goal posts were large bricks. There were small rocks hiding in the sand. And the field was surrounded on three sides by a high stone wall. These kids weren’t playing because their parents had enrolled them in some academy and wanted to get their money’s worth. They weren’t heading to East Side Mario’s afterward for a team dinner. None of them had uniforms on or even soccer shoes.
They were playing because they absolutely love to play soccer. They were playing because it was the best thing in their life. They were playing for pride, for accomplishment, and above all, for fun.
And they were amazingly good.
My daughter kept commenting on the non-stop hustle of the players. When someone lost the ball, they attacked the person who took the ball from them like their life savings were inside it. And when someone turned up field with the ball, their entire team advanced with them. This was African soccer- attack, attack, attack. Deep sand. Hot sun. Non-stop running.
I’ve seen a lot of soccer games in Canada. The young players in Canada have world-class skills, no question. But I don’t often see the drive… or, for that matter, the running… so common in the pick-up games I grew up watching and, occasionally, playing in back in Senegal.
I can’t help wondering if it’s the impact of having parents so deeply involved in their children’s sports. Listening to parents talk to their kids before, after and during the games in Canada made me wonder if they’d ever played- or remembered what it was like to think like a child. No child could possibly break down the kind of detailed instruction/criticism that has become increasingly common in rep sports. In Senegal, I never heard any parent bother. It’s up to God, parents would say. In other words, if my child is meant to be a soccer player, he will be. Or not.
It seems so logical from a distance. But how many of us are really prepared to accept that our children’s journey in their sport is up to them and may not end up where we want it to?