Sometimes it’s more about the saves than the goals

My youngest child Kobi’s last soccer game of the season was on a cold and blustery afternoon, the players running around the turf with hats and gloves, the subs on the bench shivering in the shade, the parents migrating around the field to stand in precious patches of sun.

Kobi had become somewhat of an itinerant goalie by then, playing not only for his team but for other teams in his league as well – either because their regular goalie was absent or because they didn’t have one at all. Sometimes that meant two or even three Sunday games. Not that he minded. He’d play seven days a week if he could.

Kobi was not my first goalie. Noa, our oldest child, also played keeper for a while. Being a classic first-born personality, it was not a pretty sight. Whatever standards we set for her in life – and they were not low, poor little thing – she would respond by setting her own even higher.

Every goal she let in was a tragedy, a personal failing for which she was solely responsible (me on the side: defense? DEFENSE???), complete with stricken face and tear-filled eyes. Win or lose, it didn’t matter – though losing, of course, only made it worse.

Sometimes I would try to reason with her on the car ride home – you do know the ball has to get past ten other players before it gets to you, right? – but my attempts were mostly halfhearted – I knew that whatever I said she would still be inconsolable.

After that experience, I made a firm, executive, non-negotiable decision – no more goalies.

What is the Yiddish expression? Man plans, God laughs.

By the time our fifth child, Kobi came along, our high parenting standards had mostly collapsed – actually, collapsed is not quite the right word. Rather, they just kind of wore away as time passed and the household swelled, like shingles off an old weather-beaten roof, until only the bare minimum- like Kumon, for example – remained to keep out the rain.

Take piano.

Rachel and I both took piano lessons as kids – hers stuck, mine did not – and it was a given that our kids would be subjected to piano lessons too. After a few false starts, we landed on a wonderful, kind, and patient piano teacher, Gena, who both we and the kids loved.

Practicing, however, was another story altogether: no love lost there. Piano practice was a never-ending source of conflict and strife in our house, as it was for me at the time, and for Rachel as well. And really, what makes our kids so special that they should have it any different?

One day, when Kobi was about nine years old, his sister Georgia came to us with an uncharacteristically outraged and self-righteous expression. “Why doesn’t Kobi have to play piano?” She demanded.

Rachel and I looked at each other and then over at Kobi, sitting in the cushioned, high-backed game chair his grandmother had indulgently bought him and playing Fortnite in the corner, happily chatting away on his headset with some new friend from halfway around the world.

Omigod [forehead slap!] – we forgot about piano!

On another occasion, Georgia came to us and announced that she had toilet-trained Kobi. That’s lucky, I thought to myself, because no one else is doing it!

If Kobi was a feral child, this worked out to his advantage, certainly in the short term but also in the long. Turns out that a diffusion of parental attention (benign neglect, in other words) is not necessarily a bad thing – especially when it’s compensated for by sibling attention. Whatever is lost in skills and accomplishments is gained by a certain psychological fortitude that comes from being at the bottom of a family heap.

So when Kobi came to me asking if he could play goalie, at first I tried to rebuff him. “Absolutely not,” I said, “trust me, it looks like a lot more fun than it is. You don’t really want this any more than I do.

“But I do,” he said, looking me in the eyes. “Actually.”

After a few rounds of this, and since, truth be told, I had been through the travel soccer journey with four other children by then and had become a bit apathetic, I relented. “OK fine,” I said, “one game, just to see how it goes.”

The following Sunday I stood on the sideline and watched him, a slip of a boy, standing under the net, long-sleeve black goalie jersey hanging down over skinny legs, oversized green goalie gloves on his hands.

Soon enough a player on the other team broke away and dribbled toward the goal. Kobi crouched, unsure if he should move forward or back (it’s forward, as he now knows).

The attacker shot the ball hard and fast, straight at him.

I’d like to say that Kobi blocked it, but in reality, it was more like he happened to be in the way of it. It knocked the wind out of him and bounced harmlessly off to the side (one difference between pediatric soccer and the World Cup: you can always count on the attacker to shoot directly at the goalie).

The next time, though, he was not so lucky.

Same basic story. Undefended attacker breaks away and comes running straight at the goal. Takes a shot from too far away, but a little off to the left. Kobi lunges at the ball and misses. The ball rolls gently into the back of the net.

The other team erupts in cheers, jumping up and down and hugging each other. The moment of truth. I look over at Kobi, alone and defeated, waiting to see how he will react.

He looks over at me, grins, turns his palms up, and shrugs. “Unstoppable!” He mouths.

“Actually, totally stoppable,” I say to Rachel, “but he just may have what it takes to play in goal.”

When I was a young Family Medicine resident, patients in my clinic would sometimes ask me parenting questions. I was their doctor, after all. I had read all the books, been to all the lectures, and read up on all the latest childhood development theories – why shouldn’t they?

Well, maybe because looking back, I can’t believe how little I knew and how dumb were some of the textbook things I had been taught to say. For example, wake up the infant every few hours to make sure they are ok? Really?

Most of my patients were from the Dominican Republic and had far more experience with children – their own, their friends’, their relatives’ – than I did. I should have been asking them for tips, not the other way around. In fact, I have always suspected that most of them were too smart to take my counsel, even if they were too polite to say so.

But I have learned a thing or two since then, both about the limitations of textbooks and about the power of experience. Nowadays, there are lots of things I tell parents that are not in the textbook, including rule number one: never wake a sleeping baby!

At the opposite extreme, I may counsel parents whose child won’t sleep through the night on a modified version of the Ferber method. Not to mercilessly let the baby cry, as traditional Ferber would have it; nor to suffer the torments of chronic sleep deprivation at the mercy of the child’s sleep pattern; but rather to steer a pragmatic path between the two that comforts the child while still training them to sleep.

Sometimes it comes down to simple reassurance, especially for older couples with one child, where it feels like the stakes are high, the guidance lacking, and so much seems to ride on every decision.

I just tell them what I have learned – that sure, at the extremes, parents can do a lot of damage or a lot of good, but mostly what happens is not up to us – our job is simple: to love the child and help them to grow into who they really are.

Want proof that parents have less to do with the outcome than they think? Have more than one child. That should readily relieve you of the delusion that you have anything to do with the way they turn out.

Judaism has a rule that a rabbi must be married and have children. The idea is, how else can you possibly give pastoral advice with any real authority and insight? Of course, there are limits to this approach when it comes to medicine. No one claims that an oncologist should have a history of cancer, or that an OB-Gyn needs to be a woman, for that matter, in order to do a good job.

But at least when it comes to pediatric counseling, I have found that a little first-hand experience goes a long way.

When a parent responds with skepticism to something I say, I will sometimes let it slip that I have five kids, and see the change in their eyes. If only my former resident self could have known that one day he would have such street cred!

The thing I really want to tell parents who seem overwhelmed by the gravity of the job is the thing I never actually say because I know it’s an impossible paradox: try to raise every child like they are the fifth.

As for my fifth, it turns out that letting him play in goal was the right decision not only for him but for me as well.

Having a child in goal, with all the emotional volatility it entails – fear, trepidation, disappointment, relief, suspense, joy – was just the thing this jaded soccer dad needed after more than a decade of going to games every Sunday, every Spring and every Fall.

Thanks to him, it’s become my favorite part of the week again.

Not only that but having a keeper has changed the way I watch soccer. I’ve always loved the World Cup (viva Argentina!). But this time around I’ve noticed that I find myself more excited by the saves than by the goals.

Dr. Bertie Bregman
Dr. Bertie Bregman
Full Stack Family Medicine is a newsletter about what it’s really like to practice medicine and run a medical practice in New York City.
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