In mid-field, a crush of soccer players surround the ball. One player is knocked to the ground and, instead of getting up, begins walking on all fours, his back paralled to the field. After the game his coach corners him alone on the sidelines and asks, as gently as possible, "Why didn't you get up? Why'd you walk around like you did?
Excited, he replies, "Yeah, did you see tht? I learned that in gym class. It's called the crab walk. I figured since I was on the ground, I might as well practice it."
I was that coach, and when I hear the famous Vince Lombardiline - "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing" - I simply point out that Vince never coached the Stallions, a team of six and seven-year-olds in the Reston soccer association.
As the Stallion's coach, I assure that while they don't win often, they're not losers and they know they're not. I won't lie - they yearn to win and you can see it in their faces after their loses. But they illustrate why soccer enjoys such booming popularity among area youths (close to 100,000 players). It lets everyone participate and enjoy some measure of success.
After this fall season's first game and first loss, the Stallions were downcast as I called them over for a quick huddle and a cheer for the winners. "Hey," I said, "what's everybody frowning for" You played a great game. I'm proud of all you!" I pointed out all the things they had done well. A good kick. A good pass. A good run. They titled their heads back and slowly, a smile spread across each face. I'm sure Vince would agree - for a coach of kids, at least, winning isn't everything; those smiles are.
But then, soccer's that kind of sport and it takes a while for soccer's appeal to sink in on those of us nurtured on football, baseball and basketball. It incorporates team and individual skills with a most important added attraction - it emphasizes kicking, taboo in tradition American sports.
Think about it. In baseball, "kicking" or "booting" the ball refers to making an error; in basketball, kicking the ball results in a turnover. Even in football, it si allowed only in certain controlled situations.
But in soccer, it's kick to your heart's content. That simple, easy elementary physical act is the source of joy for a soccer-playing child. If he does nothing else in the games, he can try to kick the ball and be confident of success much of the time.
On th surface the game is easy enough, especially to a kid. Just kick the ball. When it stops, kick it again. Of course, the game doesn't stay tht simple for long. As my seven-year-old son, the Stallion's center forward, tells my four-year-old (a future Stallion) when he asks why it's so much easier to score goaLs in the back yard than in a game, "In a game the guys on the other team get in your way."
Avoiding those guys sets all the other enjoyable facets of soccer in motion. It's the competition that brings out the artist in children on the soccer field. The ball comes their way and they are briefly in the spot-light. They can kick hard or soft, dribble, fake, pass, shoot, hit the ball with their head - they initiate the action and sustain it until they, or an opponent, decides to end it.
Soccer's unpredictably makes it a perfect outlet for a six-year-old's whims. A full-back, who represented the last line of defense before the goalkeeper, was distracted by the Concorde flying overhead. He looked up. A opponent dribbled around him and easily scored a goal.
Like all children's art, it's sometimes humorous, sometimes difficult to understand and sometimes touching.
It doesn't take much for a six-year-old to become in the middle of the game. When opponent confronts opponent, it's not at al unusal for the players to get turned around and wind up kicking toward the wrong goal. Fortunately, on a soccer field - one designed f or kids - there's ample room for a more level-headed player to redirect an errant ball toward the correct goal.
Soccer at an early age brings out the honest emotions of kids in a competitive situation. There are those who gloat after a win, who make life miserable for the rest. But then, they're also the ones who help us teach kids how to ignore gloaters.
There's the motion tied to the "hotdog factor" - that is, how kids show their happiness or displeasure in the heat of the action. Some go into Pele-like celebration after scoring a goal. They run, jump and flash V signs with their fingers. Others are much more calm, walking away from the goal with subdued majestic strides. Displeasure ranges from out-and-out crying and flailing the air to my son's favorite: clenching from toes to teeth held for an instant and punctuated with a quick bob of his head.
And kids have a natural flair for the dramatic, which soccer lends itself to perfectly.
On a rainy Saturday this fall my squad, decimated by illness and vacations, could field only 10 Stallions for an important game. We played anyway and quickly fell behind, 2-0 after one quarter.
On the sidelines I told them, "Look,if you don't get out there and show that other team that you know how to play this game, they're going to think you don't know anything about soccer. All of you are going to paly the whole game, so get out there and show them you kick the ball, too."
For three more quarters, 10 Stallions kicked, ran, shouted encouragement to one another, slid in the mud and dominated the game. They even scored, but only once. No team has ever felt bettr after a 2-1 loss. Neither has any coach.
So, Vince, I guess you're only half right: "Winning isn't everything."