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A Holiday Spent on the Sidelines

It’s a crystal clear day on a picture-perfect Thanksgiving weekend . . . an ideal day for a hike through the woods, to walk off all that turkey and pumpkin pie; or a trip to the beach, where the surf is high and the air has the crisp bite of wind and sea.

Or an endless procession of soccer games on a muddy, pockmarked collection of fields, crowded with yelling families and thick with the smell of grilling meat mixed with the stench from the Porta Potties ringing the field.

So guess how I spent my Thanksgiving “vacation”? At a two-day soccer marathon, appropriately called the Turkey Tournament, because that’s what I felt like as I rose before dawn each day to drag my kids out of bed, and get them fed, into soccer gear and to the field by 7, in time for their first game.

Not every parent approached the tourney with such dread. I was surrounded, in fact, by boundless enthusiasm . . . families who rolled up in motor homes and SUVs, hauled out their tents and barbecue grills, and hosted parties on the sidelines for the kids on the field.

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And there were thousands of kids on that Encino field, playing simultaneously on a dozen fields. They came in caravans from places like Santa Monica and Simi Valley, Burbank and Beverly Hills . . . kids from all-star teams and tournament squads, the cream of the crop from the region’s American Youth Soccer Organization teams.

These are folks who take their soccer seriously.

“This is great,” I heard one mother gush, as she peeled off her sweatshirt to soak up the sun’s rays. “Last year, we didn’t get to play the second day of the tournament. It was canceled on account of rain. The kids were supposed to play seven games, but they only got to play three. We were so disappointed.”

So, with an assist from Mother Nature, this could end after only one day, after only three games? I scan the sky for clouds . . . and pray for rain.

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It’s not like our family needs more soccer. The regular season--which, mercifully, ends this week--already seems to go on too long, with back-to-back games each weekend and practice every night of the week.

But when my two youngest girls were offered the chance to play in the AYSO version of a holiday bowl game, I could hardly say no. It was, after all, my “reward” for volunteering to help coach my daughter’s team.

Our team, unlike many, was made up not of all-stars, but of the children of coaches and referees . . . the volunteers who make the AYSO run.

Never mind that many of us wound up coaching not because we had any soccer knowledge or even any special interest in the game. I don’t know a sweeper from a header, a wing from a goalie. Neither does Jennifer, the head coach of my daughter’s team. But when our girls were left coach-less, we stepped up to take the helm, figuring we would learn the game.

And I have learned a lot . . . mostly about how easy it is to embarrass your child when you take your coaching mission too seriously.

There was the time my daughter stumbled to the sidelines at halftime sobbing. I yell at her for everything, she says. “You yell too much,” she tells me through her tears.

I kneel down and put my arm around her, not sure for the moment if I should be coach or Mom. “But I have to yell,” I tell her quietly. “That’s what coaches do. I’m yelling at all the girls, and it doesn’t seem to bother them.”

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She shakes her head and wipes the tears from her cheeks, pondering the burden of being coach’s kid.

“Maybe,” she said, “because you’re not their mother.”

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I expected this tourney might be a coach’s nightmare. Imagine coaching a team of coaches’ kids, with your every move being scrutinized by parents who rule the sidelines in their own right each week, barking orders, clipboards in hand.

But they were no worse than the typically overwrought soccer mom and dad.

Some even seemed relieved, for once, to be able to shed the mantle of coach and focus on their own children for a change, without having to worry about whether some other kid got a chance to score or put in enough playing time in the game.

For my kids, at least, it was a pleasure to take orders from somebody other than Mom, from a real coach, who doesn’t care if a jersey is tucked in, who yells something other than “Hustle!” on each play, who actually understands the game.

And when both girls’ teams finished with medals, I found myself whooping and hollering on the sidelines, glad we came. Count me now among the legion of fanatics, willing to exchange a rare day of leisure for the thrill of victory in a soccer game.

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Sandy Banks’ column is published on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.


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