I’ve coached my son in soccer since he was 4. Between falls, springs, and a few Futsal winter sessions we’re sitting at 15 seasons total. He has gone from running aimlessly around the field with a uniform shirt touching his kneecaps to carrying a ball in his backpack at all times and watching professional YouTube highlights.
At the beginning of the spring season he told me he was interested in a more competitive league and wanted to try out for our local “academy” team. We talked about this in the past, and now with several of his friends from school and a few neighbors already on the club, I was not surprised. When the season ended, he had not wavered. We told him it would be competitive and there was no guarantee he would make it. But he remained interested and kept playing and practicing after school every day.
So last week, despite the dismal forecast, we headed out to the fields for the first of a three night tryout. He was excited but anxious. “What kinds of drills do you think we will do? How many guys are trying out? Do you know any of the coaches?” Once we arrived they divided the players into various colored pennies and sent them to one of three fields with a few coaches to start their warm up and drills.
After 45 minutes, the club director gathered all of the parents for a quick meeting. “Thank you all for coming out tonight. We really appreciate your son showing interest in our club.” With rain coming down and whistles blowing on the fields all around us, it was tough to lean in and hear all of his words as he addressed about 40 parents huddled under tents along the sideline.
“We are about player development. There will be three teams: elite, premier, and united. If your son wants to play professional soccer, we will try to help him reach that goal. This is an academy–and we treat it like that–a school. We are here to teach the game and help your son get better. This is a community club and we are committed to having players from all backgrounds on our teams. Your fees will go to helping about 75 players a year who otherwise could not afford to play and travel, so thank you for your commitment.”
At this point, he paused and took a look over at the three fields filled with 9 and 10-year-old boys wearing blue pennies, getting absolutely soaked, and clearly enjoying every minute. “At this age, we are not too concerned with wins and losses. Our commitment is to help each player improve and achieve his goals. Any questions?”
I’m just being honest.
DAD #1 from under a Price Waterhouse Coopers umbrella. Q: How many spots do you have on the elite team this year?
A: All returning players also have to try out again, so that number is yet to be determined.
MOM #1 standing just outside the tent with rain now tumbling off her loose-fitting jacket hood. Q: “If my son has a bad tryout and gets placed on the lower level team, can he move up?”
A: Yes, we will move players. Sometimes during the season and sometimes they’ll need to try out at the end of the year in order to be assessed for a different squad.
I loitered around after the public meeting and heard: “You said that our fees subsidize players who cannot afford to play. Is there a preference for families that will pay a higher amount to subsidize additional players?” I’m guessing the director was thinking was, “and this is why US Soccer won’t be competing in the World Cup this summer.” But instead he responded, “We always welcome donations but your son will be placed on the team that suits his ability, regardless of monetary contributions.” Well played, coach.
These questions sounded eerily familiar as parallels to college admission. The only one I did not hear was, “If I also played Academy growing up, does my son get any type of advantage?” Maybe that was emailed in later. But good to know that if the soccer talent in the area dries up, the league director has transferable skills.
I came home and gave my wife the report. “He did pretty well in the drills. Definitely did not get the ball a ton in the scrimmage but there are two more nights of tryouts, so we’ll see.”
Which team do you think he’ll make?
“Tough to say. There are a lot of really good players out there and even though the coach said there are no guaranteed spots for returning players, that may or may not be totally true.”
Even as I was talking I could see the same nervous, concerned look on her face our son had a few hours earlier.
I’m writing this post on night three of tryouts from an airplane that has been sitting on the tarmac in Washington D.C. for well over an hour due to terrible storms on the east coast. With no internet and lightning erupting around us, I inexplicably can only get one song on my Spotify playlist, “Hey Ya!” by Outkast. Hence the themes and subheadings.Phone rings.
“Hey. How did it go?” I ask quietly so not to interrupt my neighbor who is already most of the way through her now lukewarm Panini and A Phantom Thread (not a recommendation).
He did ok. Not as well as last night, although he had a good shot on goal. He was upset coming home and said he’s worried he may get placed on the lowest level team. I tried to tell him even that quality would be higher than your team… I mean… you know what I’m saying, right?
I love this woman. Definitely keeps me humble. “Yeah, I hear you. Can I talk to him?”
Footsteps on stairs. Running water. Something crashes. Daughter complaining about brushing teeth in background.
“Hey, bud. How was your day?”
He launches into an assessment of the drills and his play overall.
“Gotcha. Well, I’m sorry I could not be there. Always love watching you play.”
No answer initially. And then…Yeah. We did play a pretty cool game I can show you when you get home.
I hung up and was about to put my headphones back on to see if I’d escaped the Hey Ya! loop when my neighbor asked, “Your son?” She was in her early 60’s, wearing glasses and a scarf. Her headphones were off now and she’d turned toward me.
Yeah, he had a soccer tryout tonight.
I’m sure he did great.
Well, it sounds like you handled it pretty well. He knows you love him and that’s what is important.
To be honest I’ve recently had a string of airplane neighbors who immediately covered themselves with blankets when I said hello, so it took me a second to make the transition not only to an interaction, but someone with actual sage wisdom. (Side note: I wrote this part after we deboarded in case she was watching my screen like she was eavesdropping on my conversation.)
After she went on to explain she was not going to make a connecting flight to Des Moines for a speech her husband was supposed to make in the morning, I offered her some local hotel options in Atlanta, and she went back to her movie.
Me? I closed my eyes and hit play.
Alright, alright, alright, alright, alright.
I had a couple of thoughts.
1- He will probably make one of those teams (which, as we have established, are all better than what he has experienced before) and the coaches will help him continue to improve.
2- If he does not end up on a team with his friends, he will make new ones. He always does.
3- Not knowing is the hardest part. Once he is placed and starts playing, he’ll have a blast.
But what kept going through my head was Outkast. No, wait… it was, “He knows you love him, and that’s what is important.”
Thank God for mom and dad for sticking together.
If you are a parent of a junior or sophomore who is planning to apply to selective colleges, I’m imploring you to have these conversations with your son/daughter, your spouse/partner, and with yourself, BEFORE applications are submitted (aka tryouts) and definitely before admission decisions are released.
When a school has an admit rate of 20% or 12%, the talent, preparation and skills to contribute on that field are incredible. And the truth is those percentages don’t exactly translate to 1 of 5 or 12 of 100 because that year they may only be looking for a few “defenders”, i.e. students in a particular major or from your state, etc. You will not be able to control who else or how many others are trying out. When you apply, there is no way to know if there are in fact some “reserved” spots (although I’d assume there are). What you do control is your mentality. You do control your perspective. You weren’t thinking this was all totally fair were you?
When you tour schools this summer, when those brochures arrive in the mail, when you talk to friends or colleagues about the variety of colleges they attended, when you look through the alma maters of Fortune 500 CEOs, I urge you to really read. REALLY listen. Notice what they have in common. No, I’m not talking about how you can grab three friends and a professor and start a juggling club. No, not the part about how apparently each place sends kids abroad to stand on high points and ruminate over life’s deeper meaning. I’m talking about the bigger connection and takeaway message—they are ALL about student development.
They ALL have faculty, programs, opportunities that say precisely what the coach said in the rain last week: if you come here, commit, work hard and plug-in we will help you reach your goals. (See Frank Bruni’s book for more on this.)
There is nothing wrong with wanting to make the Elite team. There is nothing wrong with visiting and applying to Ivy League or Ivy-like schools. But the big misconception, the big myth, and frankly the big misplaced mentality is that “getting in” to those places is a parent’s report card or that this perceived Elite, Premier, United structure of schools is somehow an indicator of a student’s future success and opportunities.
I want to challenge you to dig deeper into the methodology that dictates the tiers the US News Rankings prescribe. Question whether you really see a discernible difference in student quality or alumni outcomes at a school that is 15 percentage points higher/lower in selectivity. Read the statistics behind 100 points variation on an SAT before you mentally classify them into Elite vs. Premier. Look around you. Every day I meet people who went to schools that admit well over half of their applicants. What are they doing now? Running their own businesses, leading teams, and influencing their communities. Fundamentally, whether it is Northwestern or Northeastern, whether it is Washington State or Wash U, this is what colleges do for students who want to learn, grow, thrive, and work hard to achieve their goals. Get behind them!
What makes love the exception?
Get excited about every school your son or daughter puts on their list. Take the tour, buy the t-shirt, go to a game, and ultimately put that sticker on your car with pride. I get it can be tough when classmates or friends or neighbors end up on a different team. You stick with constant encouragement and they will embrace the opportunity— trust there are great new teammates to meet and coaches waiting to help them reach their goals. But, above all else, stick with the message of unconditional love. What makes love the exception? It’s not Andre3000, it’s the rule.