My heart sank the first time I stood on the sidelines of my nine-year-old son’s soccer practice in Costa Rica. Liam’s teammates ran circles around him. His little brother Reid was off the hook — at six, he was too young for this Costa Rican team — and he gripped my hand on the sidelines, reminding me at three-minute intervals that he would never play soccer in Central America. We watched as Liam nervously linked his arms behind his back and ducked every time the ball bounced near him.
For years, I had coached my kids’ recreation league soccer teams in Maine, but we are living in Costa Rica for the academic year. I felt sorry for my kid, but I was also perplexed: this team only practiced once a week; the kids would play four games over the course of the year, at best; and nothing about the coaching wowed me.
In Maine, I showed up at practices with notes detailing YouTube-researched drills: “Okay, kids, you’re minnows and I’m a shark and you try to dribble the ball away from me.” But even with predator-prey narratives, I had to change drills frequently to hold their fleeting attention.
And, yet, here was this Costa Rican soccer coach having the kids do the same monotonous drill — kicking the ball against the side of a balance beam and then shooting it into the goal — for 45 minutes, until they were exhausted, and likely bored, though they didn’t dare show it. This coach knew how to yell.
A few months in, Liam was still the unskilled kid on the team, but his confidence was growing. For a player who previously paid more attention to the clouds than the ball, he was showing real interest in the sport.
The morning of the first game, our whole family loaded into a bus and bumped along an unpaved road to a soccer field bordered by pasture. Liam’s team played well but lost. If I had been coaching, I would have given the kids a postgame “doing-your-best-is-more-important-than-winning” pep talk.
Not so with Liam’s coach. He scolded the kids, saying they deserved to lose because the other team had more “ganas.” I had heard this Spanish word before, and it brought me back to the 1988 movie Stand and Deliver. In the film, a Los Angeles math teacher, Jaime Escalante, insists he can get kids at a poor public high school more interested in calculus than gangs: “You’re going to work harder here than you’ve ever worked anywhere else. And the only thing I ask from you is ganas. Desire … If you don’t have the ganas, I will give it to you, because I’m an expert.”
I cynically wondered if Liam’s coach would have blamed the kids for lacking ganas if they had won (probably not) but it also occurred to me that his postgame scolding might inspire more ganas in the players than my “what-matters-is-you-played-hard” spiel.
On the bus ride home, Reid shocked us by marching up the aisle to ask the coach if he would make an exception and let a six-year old join the team.
Meanwhile, Liam’s dreamy eyes sparkled. “Mom, when we get back to the U.S., do you think I’ll be the best player on our team?”
“Well, Hon, if you keep practicing, then maybe….” Like a good 21st century American parent, I started to butter him up with slightly disingenuous encouragement, but then I stopped. “You want the honest answer?”
His eyes snapped to me, and he nodded.
I told him he still looked scared on the field, and that to grow he’d have to push through that fear and go after the ball all the time, no matter what. “You need to work on your ganas.”
Since that first game, before every practice, as the kids suit up in their cleats and shin guards, Liam recites his mantra: “Mom, today I’m going to work on ganas.” And he does. In other realms, Liam is still our creative, artistic soul whose thoughts are generally focused beyond what’s right in front of him. But on the soccer field, his attention is now astonishingly singular.
Reid often has his doubts before practices: “I don’t think I want to play soccer any more, Mommy.” But once I nudge him onto the field, I can see that the bit of fear he feels before each practice is good for him. He’s too busy running around to let his self-doubt get the best of him.
Last night after I put the kids to bed, I found myself reflecting on how glad I am this year not to be driving them to and from hockey, art class, piano and swimming lessons. I’m also glad their coach is “mean,” as Reid still insists upon labeling him.
In the United States, we are hard on our kids in the way we grossly overschedule them. We compensate by taking it easy on them in the moment, prefacing critiques with compliments, changing drills every five minutes so they don’t get bored, not making them run too much for fear that — God forbid — they complain. Perhaps we’ve prevented our children from learning what deep, aching desire feels like.
Next year, when we return to Maine and I face a new team of soccer players as a coach, I’ll start practice with this: “Kids, let me tell you about a thing called ganas.” And then I’ll run them hard.
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