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My son plays tournament soccer. Our team is not what’s typically referred to as a “club” team, where players’ families shell out $4-6K per year in various expenses, and the kids benefit from professional coaching and hardcore training. Our’s is a volunteer-driven subset of AYSO rec-league soccer that wants to play more competitively. We pay our own way to participate in these tournaments, and more often than not, play against club teams.

Suffice it to say that we’ve taken our lumps so far this year. It’s not that we lack the talent. What we lack is just about everything else. It’s been a struggle to get the boys to come together and play as a team, and it’s frustrating to watch. Instructions shouted in from the sidelines by the coach, and sometimes by the parents (not me . . . ever . . . honest!), often lead to a rather pathetic form of confused chaos on the field, which in turn leads to angst, defeat, and a predictable drop in morale. We’ve made such a habit of losing that, even when we’re in a position to win, we find a way to blow it. Clearly, something needs to change. I’ve long thought that the missing elements in our practice regimen were a bullhorn and a whip. There’s been talk lately about holding some “team-building” exercises – you know, the kind you hear about at corporate retreats, but without the expense account. More on that later.

This weekend was another of those big tournaments, with teams traveling in from all over Arizona, Southern California and even Vegas. And our first game went pretty much like all the others. We could have won. We should have won. We didn’t.

On the field again later that afternoon for the second game, something felt different. We were up against the team that was leading the tournament, yet the boys looked unusually composed. They looked coordinated. They were working together. They were effectively moving the ball and controlling the action. It was then that I realized how peaceful it was on the sidelines. I heard cheering. Just cheering. Absent was the constant barrage of “coaching” that used to drown out everything else. And also missing was the deer-in-the-headlights response that usually followed the coach’s shouted instructions. For the first time, the boys were directing their own play on the field, and we grown-ups were smart enough to let things unfold without interfering. It was truly a zen moment.

The boys played to a scoreless tie in that game, which was actually quite an accomplishment. And, best of all, the boys came off the field with their heads held high, knowing that they had played one of their best games together. We agreed to try the new aproach again for the third game, and guess what? Yep, they won. At the moment, I’m not thinking that a “team-builder” event is necessary. I think we just had one. Could it be that the problem had little to do with the kids?

Sometimes the best thing to do when coaching youth sports is to keep our mouths shut and let the kids play.

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Sometimes I crack myself up, and this weekend was one of those times. Not because I’d made some witty remark or observation, quite the contrary. On this occasion, I unleashed my inner knucklehead.

For several weeks, my youngest daughter has been asking me if I could build a tetherball pole for her. Nothing fancy, just your typical portable model made from and old tire filled with concrete. We’ve all seen them. You roll it out onto the driveway to play, and roll it away when you’re done. It’s a pretty simple piece of engineering.

Determined not to let this turn into another treehouse episode, I said “Sure, no problem!” and made a mental note to follow through this time. Last week, I was at the tire shop for a rotation and balance, so I asked if I could have one of their throw-away tires for the project. “Of course,” he said. “I’ll bag one up and leave it in the back of your car.” Our project was officially underway.

On the way back from a soccer game Saturday afternoon, my son and I made a detour to Home Depot to pick up the remaining items – a section of pipe for the base, another section of pipe for the pole (removable for storage), some miscellaneous hardware and of course, concrete mix. The tire they gave me was pretty big, but I figured four bags of concrete would be about right.

Back home, we started right in. The first task was to cut a section of plywood to act as a “plug” for the underside of the tire. Once that was in place, we were ready to start mixing the mud. After hand-mixing and pouring all four bags of concrete, there was still room left in the tire, and the embedment of the pipe sleeve was less than I wanted. I needed two more bags of mix. We made a mad dash back to the hardware store, and were able to return before the concrete started to set. Those last two bags made all the difference. With the tire filled to perfection and the sleeve securely in place, there was just one last thing to do. As any kid will tell you, no concrete project is done until the handprints are made. Check.

We left it overnight to cure, and went out to inspect it the next morning. I have to say it was a work of art – a quality project, just like we’d imagined, delivered on time and on budget. I was feeling good, and my daughter was brimming with joy and anticipation. So . . . what’s the problem? Well, the problem is that I failed to do a little simple math: Tire – 15 lbs. Six bags of concrete – 360 lbs. Twelve gallons of water to mix the concrete – 96 lbs. Steel pipe – 10 lbs. Grand total – 481 pounds! I can’t move the damn thing!

Like I said, it’s a piece of art.

A fellow blogger has a series of posts titled “What You Will Do For Your Children,” wherein he’ll spotlight some of the selfless, and sometimes humiliating, hoops we’ll climb through for no other reason than to show our love and support for the little ones in our lives. So Matt, tally this one up in your column.

A while back, I posted a little piece about my disdain for Dunkin Donuts’ coffee. Considering all the hype I’d heard and read, I was more than a little disappointed when I finally got around to trying it, and shared my thoughts with the world. Well, guess what? I’m now hawking DD’s coffee to my friends and family, or anyone else who needs a bag or two. It’s a fundraiser for my son’s soccer team (those tournaments get expensive!) and we get to keep a pretty good share of the proceeds.

So, I never thought I’d be saying this, but . . .

Anyone care for some Dunkin Donuts coffee?   Options are: regular, decaf, vanilla, or hazelnut (all ground). Whole bean coffee is available in regular or decaf. Nine bucks a bag, and you can have it by Christmas. Yeah, I know the grocery store sells it for less. That’s why we call it a fundraiser.

Lots of folks really like this stuff. Makes an easy holiday gift. Any takers?

Ah yes, Black Friday cometh. But before we join the stampede to grab the latest gadgets and gizmos, there’s something I’d like to share with you – a little twist on our conventionally held notions of gift-giving.

So many of us get caught up in the “spirit” of the holidays. We peruse the door-buster ads in advance, rank the priorities, and map out the most efficient course to hit all the best sales. We have lists and more lists of whom to buy for, what to buy, and how much to spend. It’s the world’s largest scavenger hunt. For many, it’s become a seasonal tradition, cherished as much (if not more than) our Thanksgiving feast a day earlier, and I actually think that’s fine.

We’ll spend the coming month shopping, singing, baking, and decorating. We’ll attend a never-ending stream of school plays and holiday parties, planning and coordinating and burning every ounce of energy we’ve got until at last, Christmas Day arrives. Gifts are presented, packages ripped open with elation, and thank-yous exchanged. Another meal, a glass of wine, and then?

We need to follow through.

Huh?

We need to follow through on the gifts that we give. You see, the value of a gift is not in its price, but rather in its worth. And what makes a gift worth giving is the follow-through. I’ll give a couple of examples . . . If you give a kid a football, make the time to play catch. If you’re giving the Monopoly game, follow through by taking the time to play along. If you present your wife with some beautiful new jewelry, plan a night out where she can actually wear it. The gift isn’t the “thing,” the gift is you. Am I making sense here?

Without the follow-through, gifts quickly lose their value. Sometimes, a gift without the follow-through is worse than no gift at all.  We give anticipation, and set our loved ones up for a big let-down. In the end, nobody feels good about the gift. I’ve been guilty of this in the past. In fact, I’m a repeat offender.

It’s taken me 40-something years to figure this out, and with any luck I can make up for some lost ground, starting now. Here’s wishing everyone a wonderful season of giving. Cheers!

My Saturday began on Friday, strategizing with my wife about how we were going to conquer the events of the next day. By any measure, the itenerary was nuts – 3 soccer games, 2 parties, and a planned outing with my daughter’s volleyball team to watch the ASU-Stanford volleyball match – but not far from ordinary for a family with active kids. We could have taken our usual approach, to divide-and-conquer. That would have been a slam dunk. But with just enough time between events, we embraced the challenge to stick together and do it all as one big, happy family. We went over the start times and locations, factored in drive time and necessary stops, and plotted our course. 

Saturday morning, I was in charge of packing enough food and drink to get us through the day. What’s faster than fast-food? Easy, PBJ in the car! By 8am we were out the door.

Game 1: My son’s soccer team had been struggling against higher-caliber competition all season, and morale was sinking. This game was more evenly matched, and the boys played hard. As the game progressed, we could see some of the training and teamwork start to show through, and my son scored on a great offensive run. The game ended in a 3-2 loss, but some confidence had been restored, and we looked forward to the afternoon game.

Game 2: The final game of the season for my youngest daughter, and honestly, we were all glad to see it come to an end. She’s a great little talent and usually plays with heart and passion, but her enthusiasm was squashed this year by a coach who really just had no business leading a little girls team. He was loud, scolding and intimidating, and he’d lost the respect of the girls (and most of the parents) a long time ago.

I actually missed most of Game 2. My son wasn’t feeling well after his early game, and I had to make a run to the pharmacy. We’re still not sure what the underlying ailment was, but I had a feeling that dehydration was probably a factor.

Party #1: We wrapped the birthday gift in the car on way, and dropped our young soccer star off for a sleep-over party on the way to the next game.

Game 3: My son’s afternoon game was in serious doubt. He’d improved slightly in the past half hour, but wasn’t moving quickly and said he just wanted to go home. Knowing that he’s really good at acting miserable, I did my best high-wire act, suggesting that he at least come down to the field and make an appearance. If after warm-ups he wasn’t feeling any better, I told him we’d go home. As it turns out, I’d played the hand perfectly. Come game time, he was revved up again, and ended up scoring in that game as well. By the time it was over he was completely spent, but I could tell that pushing through was a great confidence-booster for him.

Party #2: We gathered with my older-daughter’s volleyball team for an end-of-season BBQ. Since I’ll be taking over as head coach for the upcoming season, I saw this as a unique opportunity to carry some momentum forward into the new season.

And finally, the big-girls game: Most of the girls had never played volleyball before this season, and it was great to see how far they’d come in just a couple of months. It’s one thing to teach the technical skills of how to pass, set, and hit, but how does one teach awareness, anticipation, and strategy? I seized this opportunity to drag the girls out to see ASU’s final home game, against #6-ranked Stanford. I was hoping the girls would benefit from seeing what it looks like when a team has all the pieces in place – positioning, movement, communication, focus and intensity. It’s possible that it was too much to comprehend. Volleyball is a very different game when played “above the net,” so they may have been confused by much of what they saw. Even so, it was a great night out, and a fun bonding experience. Our first practice under my supreme rule is tonight. It’ll be interesting to see how it goes.

So there it is, a busy day in the life of me. I came home exhausted, but I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. I’m really digging this family thing.

I hate this song. Not because it’s a crappy song, but because it messes with my head. First released 35 years ago, this Harry Chapin classic is about an aging father who reflects back on all the missed opportunities he’d had to bond with his son. The pattern comes full-circle when the son, now grown up with kids of his own, can’t find the time to visit his father.

I don’t know why this song haunts me the way it does. It’s like a little parasite that found its way inside my brain, where it lurks in the background. It feeds on my insecurities as a father, and rises to the surface whenever I’m feeling torn in different directions. Sure, in some respects I was the kid from that song. But I’m no different than the millions of other kids that grew up in a broken home. You dig deep, pick yourself up as best you can and move on.

Truthfully, the song never got to me until I became a dad. Now, it’s like a bucket of ice water thrown in my face every time I hear it. My Pavlovian response is to self-analyze and critique my own actions as a father. How many times have I said “no” when I really could have said “yes?” What will my kids remember from their childhood? What opportunities am I missing?

It’s not about spoiling them, it’s more about being present and engaged. Honestly, I think I’m doing a decent job – far from perfect, to be sure, but I’m pretty involved in just about everything that they do. But when I hear that song, I can’t help but wonder if I’m falling short in some way. I suppose it doesn’t help that my first child really did learn to walk while I was away.

And deep down, I also know that I’ve become the grown-up kid from the song. My dad’s been hitting me up for a fishing trip for years now. I’d really like to go.

Daughters,” the hit song by John Mayer, touches on the enduring scars that a broken home can leave on a little girl’s heart and psyche, and how those scars can impact the girl’s own relationships as an adult. It’s a moving piece, and worthy of a good listen. But as much as I love the song, I think it stops just short of revealing a more subtle lesson. 

If we are lucky in life, we’re treated to a healthy sampling of what I like to call “a-ha” moments – a sudden clarity or understanding of something on a new and deeper level. One day, many years ago, I got a whopper.

My wife and I were having one of our frequent conversations about raising kids. The topic this time was patience, discipline, and unconditional love. I don’t recall the particulars of what led to the discussion, but I suspect that I had some harsh words with my little girl, made an angry face, and allowed her to walk away in tears. No doubt it was another one of those situations when, as a young father, I felt at a loss to handle things differently. That’s when I was given an amazing gift.

She explained to me that, as her father, I am (by default) my little girl’s vision of what a man is supposed to be. Everything that I say and do shapes the way that she sees herself, and her place in the world. It establishes a baseline for what is normal in relationships. If I am loving, patient, gentle and caring, then those behaviors will become ingrained and “set the bar” for how she will expect to be treated by the boys and men in her life. On the other hand, the girl who grows up in a harsh and abusive setting will expect and tolerate the same treatment from others – boyfriends, her husband, etc. She will forfeit respect and dignity, and never know real love.

It was a sobering thought. The light bulb went on. This new awareness enabled me to look at things through a different lens, and since that day, I’ve never lost sight of my most important role as a father. I will be eternally grateful for learning this lesson early, before any harm could be done. My little girl is now a teenager, and for her, just about every day brings new challenges. It’s not always easy, but from what I can see, I think she’s going to make it.

Not long ago, we lived for a few years in a smallish town in northern California, far removed from the hustle and bustle of big-city life that we had always known. It was a grand experiment, a change of scenery and lifestyle – one of those things that you don’t think too much about until you’re raising a family. We had blue skies, clean air, lakes and rivers all around us, and trees. Lots and lots of trees!

We bought a home on the edge of town. It came with an acre of land for the kids to run around, and a small creek that wound its way through the front of the property. Oh yeah, and it had trees. So many trees that we actually had to cut a few dozen of them to allow some sunlight to reach the ground. And finally, the kids could have a real treehouse.

It was scenic and serene and . . . it needed a lot of work. I imagine that most people would move into the house, carve the home improvement effort into bite-size pieces, and tackle the projects one at a time. Not us. We’d been through a home remodel before, and if we learned anything, it was that our little weekend projects tended to become half-completed eyesores.

We spent about four months renovating the place before finally moving in. Portions of the house were gutted to open up the space and allow daylight to creep in. We put in a brand new kitchen, hardwood flooring, and new carpet. We painted – everything. A handsome new woodstove graced one corner of the room. It was finally starting to look and feel like home. There were still some projects to be finished, but alas I was out of time (and out of money), and it was time to get on with our lives.

As any parent knows, the demands of kids’ activities will test even the most organized of families. With soccer, music lessons, scouts, and a host of school activities, it was hard to even think about finishing some of those projects around the house, much less find the energy to actually do them. But we still talked about the treehouse. We wandered the yard, sizing up all the different locations. We considered the size and shape of the trees, their location relative to the other playground amenities, and of course, the view potential. We talked about ladders and slides and rope swings, even a bridge to a platform in the neighboring tree. I drew some sketches, and thought about all the details, the materials I’d need. This was going to be one awesome treehouse!

I’m embarassed to admit that we never built it. At some point, I’d become so wrapped up in the idea of making this great treehouse, that I lost sight of why we were doing it. Instead of building something for the kids, I’d taken it on as a personal quest to make it bigger and better than it needed to be. The design was never quite good enough, we were busy with other things, and time gradually slipped away. I had squandered the opportunity, and denied my kids the chance to enjoy one of childhood’s great treats.

We still own the house. Another family has lived in it for about a year now. A couple of weeks ago, we were back in the area on vacation, and we took a drive through the old neighborhood. Not much had changed. We drove past the house to see if everything looked to be in order, and turned up a side street that offered a glimpse into the backyard. Peering through the trees, I suddenly felt a sickness in my stomach that I may never forget. It was as if all of the blood had drained from my body. There, in the corner of the yard, stood a treehouse. It wasn’t big. It wasn’t pretty. It didn’t have all the neat stuff. But it was there, and I imagine those kids think it’s just perfect.