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What Does it Mean When Kids Refuse to Play Ball? 

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My twin 4-year-old daughters were super-excited about their first real soccer match. At least, they said they were. They'd given my wife and me no reason to doubt them. Their practices had been a blast. A couple of their teammates were pals from school. One of their favorite preschool teachers was a coach. Every kid had her or his own ball, a team T-shirt and shin pads. This was going to be great.

Only, come game time, it wasn't great. It wasn't even soccer. My daughters flat-out refused to play.

This made no sense to me. They'd been so psyched. Why the sudden change of heart?

I wondered if they might be insecure about not being as good as the other kids. But that seemed unlikely. As any pre-K soccer spectator knows, it's the rare 4- or 5-year-old who can stand out amidst the tangle of feet kicking the ball haphazardly around the field.

Had my wife, Laura, and I inadvertently pressured our girls into playing? Had we conveyed too strongly how much we'd enjoyed playing soccer as kids? Were they now paying us back?

It was hard to tell. Variations on "I don't want to" and "I don't feel like it" were all they'd give us — before, during and after every game.

Over the next six weeks of the fall soccer season, we tried everything we could think of to get them to take the field. Each weekend game became a new competition — parents versus kids. Sometimes we played defense: "Please tell us how we can make this more fun for you." Sometimes we played offense: "You know, it's really hot out today, and it's kind of selfish not to go out there so some of your teammates can take a rest." Sometimes we made post-game treats contingent on playing time.

Nothing worked. We failed to motivate our daughters to play more than a few minutes here and there. Our first soccer season ended for us in a nil-nil tie.

Looking back almost a year later, I'm still confused about what happened. Do my daughters even like soccer? They won't say, definitively, one way or the other.

Now Laura and I are wondering whether we'll sign them up again this year, or try a different sport, or — gasp — not sign up for any sport at all.

This last option, I'm a little embarrassed to admit, had never occurred to me before. I grew up in a pretty sporty household. My father had been an elite college athlete, a basketball player. He wasn't much of a role model for me, but my older brother was — he lettered in four varsity sports at South Burlington High School before playing varsity soccer at a midwestern university. I played soccer at SBHS, too — well enough to make the all-state team. Being on a sports team was my family norm.

I guess I've always assumed my girls would play team sports, too. I'd love for them to enjoy the social benefits of playing on an athletic team, to bond with other kids over some common goal and learn to put the group's success above their own glory.

The pre-K soccer team seemed like a great place to begin. In our hypercompetitive culture, kids who get a late start can find themselves at a disadvantage against kids who have been playing longer, attending sports-themed camps and so on.

But maybe my girls just weren't ready yet. After all, I wasn't playing soccer at their age. I learned to juggle a ball on the sidelines of flag-football games because there was no soccer league for elementary school-age kids.

Or maybe they're not cut out for team sports. And maybe that's OK. After all, my longer-term goals for them are really more about wellness than about winning or losing.

The community they're growing up in has a broader, more enlightened sense of the value of physical activity — and the many different ways to pursue it — than the one of my youth. Check out YMCA, parks and rec and day-camp programs: There's swimming, dance, kayaking, wall climbing, fitness walking, biking, yoga. As skeptical as I remain about the benefits of baby yoga, I'm glad that today my daughters and their peers can develop strength, agility and coordination in myriad ways that don't require wearing pads and a mouth guard.

And then I look at my own household, headed by two parents who exercise regularly. We're not athletes, Laura and I, and we're not in training for anything — except, we hope, a healthy and active life. That's our family norm. We don't talk about it much. We just do it.

Maybe that was the mistake we made with youth soccer. It all started with the parents talking up an activity that we enjoyed as kids. Maybe this season we start by listening.

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