Category Archives: Extracurricular Activities

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Lessons for Life from the Soccer Field

We’re nearly at the end of soccer season here: Saturdays spent camped on folding chairs, as twenty-two 10, 11 and 12 year olds race frantically for hours in pursuit of an inflated leather object. This passion will no doubt continue throughout their lives, but will soon be referred to as shoe shopping.

The first team Martha played for was in Torrance, Los Angeles; home of the Olympic gold medallist Shannon Box. The location was the only thing Martha’s team had in common with any sort of soccer excellence, mainly because of their age, and the all-inclusive philosophy of the organization, and the inhibiting nature of the uniforms. What it lacked in skill, however, it made up in entertainment value, not least watching the agonies of the volunteer parent coaches as all the skills that had been carefully rehearsed in practice disappear like mist once they hit the pitch.

The selection process was less than rigorous; players on each team were allocated at random, issued with a uniform and two unsuspecting parent coaches, and allowed to choose their own names. Martha’s team made the interesting choice of “The Pink Unicorns” in honor of their blush pink strip. They had an equally non-threatening banner, a Pink Unicorn jumping over a rainbow, and all the girls wore matching pink ribbon pom-pom hair elastics. In eight year old girl terms, they had already won the jackpot, and any further glory on the field would just be greedy. This was reflected in their play; although they played very well as a team, they proved completely incapable of the killer instinct that got the ball into the back of the net. The level of skill it took to miss quite that many shots was staggering, and had the coaches in near hysteria. Meanwhile, at the other end of the field, our numbers were being quietly decimated. Every time the opposing team managed to score, the goalie would sink to the floor in a flood of tears, and have to be led sobbing from the field. They would then be replaced with another team member, only for the whole process to be repeated over, and over again.

Here in San Francisco, things have moved up a notch. Martha is now three years older, and team soccer skills have moved beyond the “swarm’; 14 girls standing in a circle around the ball attempting to kick it until someone actually makes contact, then running en masse after it to repeat the whole process over again. Now there is evidence of some really good play. The people who run the youth soccer association are pretty savvy; they keep track of who are the stars from previous years and make sure they are divided up between the new teams. There is less sobbing, the teams all play in proper formations, and the girls have finally grown into the strip that is bought in one size, whether you are a first or and eighth grader.

But one thing has come to light – the refereeing. The right of the viewing public to criticize the referee’s decision on any and all calls is developing nicely. The LMYA motto “They play, We coach, You cheer” is frequently tested, with a highlight of any game being a parent or coach sending off.

To be fair, the refs have an unenviable task. Keeping the games running injury free and on time are difficult enough. They start every game by asserting their focus on safety, which involves the tapping of shin pads, the tucking in of shirts, and the removal of jewelry, which with 24 lavishly adorned  girls on the teams can take a considerable time and rechecks. Injuries are minor, but are greeted by a swarm of concerned players around the victim, copious heartfelt apologies, and the ball left completely unattended in a far corner of the pitch, regardless of whether the whistle has blown. Last week the ref was forced to take a time out to explain that “unless my whistle blows, you keep playing”, when play had indeed stopped, for no discernible reason.

But their decisions reflect the age and skill level of the players, and as such, are infuriating to some of the more ambitious parents. The offside rule is a open for interpretation, the edges of the field are sometimes a little wobbly, and I have yet to see a FIFA world cup game where the ref allowed a second try at a throw in. But it’ s the spirit of the decisions that I love, with the referees applying the philosophy of “what would the Dalai Lama do?” to every call. The sight of the game being stopped for a quick instructional on just how to keep your feet on the floor for the throw in gladdens my heart. It may mean that the scoreboard can be called into question, and that those parents wanting to take it seriously are left frustrated. But the calls keep the play moving, the players motivated, and give a little leeway when the less confident players finally get their foot to the ball.  It’s their lesson for life; it’s not the winning or the losing that counts, it’s how they play they game. And for now, they have it right – it’s all much more fun when we get to play it together.



Today is literacy tutoring day.

In an effort to find some meaningful work to counterbalance the endless hours spent with my backside glued to the driving seat, I signed up to be a literacy tutor. I have a background in teaching, English is my first language, so it seemed like something I might be halfway decent at. So, on January 1st, fresh with New Year zeal (and a not insignificant number of martinis), I signed up with Project Second Chance.

Now, here’s where I maybe didn’t think things through. I can’t fault the seriously good training, and the exceedingly patient staff, but I did become sneakily aware of my lack of school grammar  lessons. And the fact that I spelt a significant number of words differently to my American counterparts. And when trying to enunciate the vowel sounds, mine sounded very different.. In literacy tutor terms, I was most definitely the runt of the litter.

A large part of the program’s success can be put down to the skill of the staff in matching student and tutor, so I eagerly anticipated meeting the luckless individual who got assigned me as their tutor. Quite how they decided to pair a grammatically inept, mono-lingual, non-US citizen with a highly educated, multi-lingual US citizenship applicant is beyond me, but I have to assume alcohol was involved. Or a bet.

But here we are, five months later, still having a blast. Between the two of us, we have muddled through the entire US history (citizenship edition), mispronounced most of names of the Native American tribes, learned the lyrics for “The Star Spangled Banner”, and celebrated the successful outcome of the first of our citizenship tests. Hers, not mine.

But today we tackle the Everest of literacy accomplishment – grammar. It’s about to go horribly wrong, because all I can come up with is this.

A school boy answers a knock at the front door to find his teacher standing on the step.

Teacher: “I need to speak to your parents about your attendance. Is your mother in?”

Boy: “No, she ain’t, she’s gone to the shops”

Teacher: ” Well what about your father?”

Boy: No, he ain’t here neither, he’s at the pub.”

Teacher (in an exasperated voice): “‘Isn’t here either’, George, not ‘ain’t here neither’. Where’s your grammar?”

Boy: “Oh, she’s here, she’s in the front room watching telly!”

And there we have it. My sole contribution to the betterment of literacy tutoring.

Wish me luck. And in case you were wondering, here’s Grandma. She has a thing for Omar Sharif..


First Day of Football Season..

Today is a glorious day, the culmination of 9 months of intensive conditioning, weight training and game plays. A day when 30 young men in their prime stream onto the field to represent their school in the first game of the season. And my son is one of them.


Right there is the problem. He is one of them,  but I have absolutely no idea which one. Last year, he was the last on the team, and so was given the leftover uniform, which included the greyest, saggiest pair of football pants that I have ever clapped eyes on. He also very rarely made it onto the field, so the rear of his jersey with his number in foot high characters standing rooted to the sideline, made it rather easier. This year, thanks to his dedication, hard work and complete lack of interest in the coach’s tantrums, he has stood his ground and made it into the line-up. It’s a nightmare.

Life would be rather easier if I understood the game. I am an excellent armchair referee of rugby, I understand the finer points of the offside rule in soccer (football, for the rest of the world) and I can keep up with canoe polo, but (American) football? Not a chance.

For one thing, the whole team doesn’t stay on the field for the whole game. Someone kicks the ball, everyone tries to catch it and inevitably fails (15 year old adolescent males are not renowned for their co-ordination), and then the whole team runs off the field in a dejected fashion to be replaced by a group of identically dressed boys, whose only distinguishing characteristic is their slightly larger size. They then maul at the opposing boys, regardless of location of the ball, until someone on our team happens upon it, picks it up, and is immediately whisked off the field with his mates to be replaced by a less mangled lot. And so it goes on.

I have, however, developed a number of strategies to keep my interest. We are given a roster of players and their numbers at the start of the game, and I use this as my personal ‘I spy’ card. Given that the program tends to be hastily put together by admin volunteers with better things to do, there are inevitably bloopers, so it’s a rare day when I get to cross everyone off. This somewhat idle pursuit had reaped unexpected rewards – I’m usually looking away from the action where the slower moving (and therefore easily identifiable) numbers are, and it’s a gold mine. Like the time I spotted that one of the opposing players was, in fact, female. A strongly built, rather aggressive female, it has to be said, but a female non the less.

But this year, it’s going to be different. I’m going to pay attention, learn the game, and loudly cheer him on. Or at least the bobblehead that I think is him…