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Article for March 6, 2011

Born in the same decade as Mia Hamm’s World Cup winning team, my oldest daughter’s extra-curricular passion has always been soccer (along with American Girl dolls, then Brett Farvre, then Zac Efron, and now, Justin Bieber). In the earliest days of her career, Annalise would fold in with the rest of the bi-colored wave of girls washing to and fro across the field, following the bouncing ball. As the years progressed, the persistent chorus of coach voices eventually persuaded the girls to un-clump, and spread out…. Annalise apparently took that advice to heart. Practices would begin and end with laps. Somewhere around Fourth Grade, a pattern began to emerge in the pre, and post-game warm-up, or warm-down drills. The rest of the team would run congregation-style, all clumped together. A full soccer field in front of the congregation, you would always find Annalise, running as if she had stolen something from the collection plate. Annalise was fast.

As the years progressed, it seemed to me that Annalise’s greatest strength in soccer, may also have proven to be her liability. Her speed allowed her to skip over some of the fundamentals. Rather than developing complicated dribbling skills, she specialized in the one-touch-precision-pass, that prevented thicker girls from pushing her thin runner’s frame off of the ball. At the onset of Middle School, I began to notice that elite girl’s soccer was much more of a contact sport than I had ever imagined. My daughter with her cheetah body was a good soccer player. As high school began to come into focus, I wondered if a future track coach might notice that this good soccer player, might be a great runner. With freshman year, soccer season switched from Fall to Spring. To fill the void, Annalise figured that she could try out for cross country, while continuing to play on her beloved club soccer team. As I had anticipated, her new coaches noticed.

It didn’t take long before Annalise was running out in front of a different pack of girls—the varsity girl’s cross country team. With each meet, her times improved, and eventually, she qualified to run State in Jefferson City. Toward the end of her season, just before the State meet, Annalise began to complain of pain in her right shin area. We were told by other parents and coaches that, for long distance runners, this was a fairly common occurrence—“nothing to worry about.” What we didn’t know, was that our decision to allow her to play two sports simultaneously was hard on her young legs. Unknown to us, for her final meet of a very successful season, Annalise ran on a cracked tibia. The pain, and her perceived lack of success, led to weeping at the finish line. A six-week boot-cast, healed Annalise’s leg of its injury, but it took several months to understand the impact to her psyche.

This Sunday’s first reading was taken from a section of Deuteronomy (Chapter 11) in which Moses exhorted God’s people to take the essential teachings from the Torah, and bind them to their wrists and foreheads. In the Gospel (Mt 7: 21-27), Jesus picked up a similar theme. He said that his followers should “listen to [his] words and act on them.”

In speaking with several cross-country coaches I learned that to continue to improve in long-distance running, it is important for a girl-athlete to run track in the spring. Cross-country in the fall, and track in the spring, mutually reinforce both sports. The minute I heard this, I felt that it was my responsibility to impress that insight upon my daughter. The problem was, the harder I pushed on this insight, the more my daughter resisted. Conversely, the more she resisted, the harder I pushed. By the time a decision was called for in January, my whippet-fast daughter was telling me that she didn’t mind drifting back into the middle of the pack of long-distance runners. She was going to play soccer with her friends.

Eventually, I came to see that it was my job to accept whatever choice my daughter made. I also came to see what I have been telling my clients for two decades. When dealing with adolescence, it is foolish to meet force with force. With the grace of God, I had learned that I had to let go and let my daughter make up her own mind. With her overbearing father no longer playing the resistance game with her, my daughter asked me if I would arrange a meeting with one of my cross-country dads, and his nationally ranked long-distance runner/daughter. The night before the decision was due, she just wanted to make sure that she was making the right choice.

In the course of that meal, Annalise came to the realization that her negative experience at State was overly influencing her current decision. She also came to see that fear of letting her life-long soccer friends down was driving her choice. Yesterday, on the day of her fifteenth birthday, Annalise put on her track shoes, and attended her first practice. She said that it was hard watching her friends over on the soccer field, but she felt confident that she had made the right decision for herself.

This winter, God has been patiently trying to get me to listen to a word that he has been persistently whispering into my ear. To parent effectively, my children need a dad who holds onto them with a loose grip. To meet my children’s adolescent force, with my own inner-adolescent force, is to get into the way of their development. I can understand Moses’ prescription to bind the essential wisdom of the Torah to one’s forehead. In the crush of daily activities, and my own reactivity, it is so easy to lose sight of essential truths—even those truths that have been hard won by trial and error. What are the essential truths that God has been trying to impress upon you through the events of your own life? How will you bind them to your mind, heart, and behavior?

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