Spring soccer is almost upon us and, this time, I think our family will be ready. I didn't know what to expect when my wife and I introduced our 4-year-old, Liam, to the world of sports through the Whetstone Community Center's fall soccer league.

Spring soccer is almost upon us and, this time, I think our family will be ready. I didn't know what to expect when my wife and I introduced our 4-year-old, Liam, to the world of sports through the Whetstone Community Center's fall soccer league. Kate, my wife, thought a 4-year-old with a summer birthday might be too young for competitive sports, but I thought it could be a good way to harness Liam's boundless energy. Better to kick a soccer ball than his little sister. We were both right. Soccer did sap some of his energy, but I completely underestimated how much work it would be, explaining competitive sports to a 4-year-old. Liam had never counted off by numbers. He'd never done a shooting drill. Heck, he didn't know what "shooting" was. Just the difference between "goal" and "goalie" had to be explained several times. At practice, I often ended up cat-herding the Panthers with Liam's coach, who had neither coached nor played soccer. Turns out neither of those limitations mattered much with this age group. Coaching strategies were less about drills and more about sensing when the group's attention span had reached zero, and then instructing the team to run as fast as they could to a faraway tree while screaming, "Pantherrrrrrrs!" On the day of the first game, everyone was excited, including Liam. He dashed onto the field in his purple uniform, but then stopped abruptly, befuddled and concerned. "Daddy," he said. "What are those people in the yellow shirts doing here?" "That's the other team, Liam," I said. "That's who you're playing against." "But I wanna play with my team," he whined. I had some more explaining to do. Our biggest breakthrough came in a midseason game when Liam had the chance to play goalie. He was still more interested in the grass than the game, so I told him to pretend he was Spider-Man, and the other team's players were the bad guys, and he had to keep the bad guys from getting the ball in Spider-Man's net. Standing in his goalie shirt that was so big it could have passed for a dress, Liam looked across the field with the fiercest superhero face he could muster, clenched his teeth, and said, "OK, Daddy." Competition finally made sense. Kate and I had our own light-bulb moment during the first game. We finally understood why our own parents did their best to make it to every childhood sporting event. Initially, it was easy to see soccer as yet another weekly commitment. But it only took one game for Kate and me to become those parents. You could hear us on the sidelines yelling, "Go, Will!" and "Good try, Tatum!" We were Panther parents and we loved our team - even if it sometimes resembled a swarm of purple bees tracking something sweet. It also provided instant camaraderie with the other parents. I suppose it's the common goal that brings a team's families together. We wanted our Panthers to win - or, at least, to have a good time for half an hour. In school, the common educational goal is too nuanced, too undefined. It takes sports to form an instant bond. I anticipate some concepts will require some re-teaching this season, such as, "It's okay to get muddy" and "Stop holding hands with girls during the game" and "You're going the wrong way!" But I'll be ready with superhero analogies, and Liam will be ready with his steely gaze. -Joel Oliphint is a freelance writer, often running his mouth about music in The Other Paper and other pubs. His two kids refer to Bob Evans as Bob Dylan's and still don't know the purple dinosaur's name.