A tournament far, far 'away'

Travel soccer was already costly. But a tournament in Japan?

When I was a kid, we played most of our ball games in a backyard a half-block from my house. The trip to our home field took less than a minute, and our means of conveyance was bipedal.

A generation later, our kids have joined "travel team" nation.

If your daughter demonstrates a modicum of athletic prowess, about the time she hits an age of double digits, she'll be invited to play on a travel team. That means you get to spend many hours in traffic and a bunch of weekends on far-flung fields that are removed from most common amenities such as food and running water. Not only that, but the cost of tournament fees and hotels runs to the thousands. In other words, it's a great honor.

Having done this with my son, I was ready for it with my daughter… until her soccer team received the ultimate great honor. They were invited to a tournament 5,471 miles away – in Japan.

I was apoplectic.

These were 11- and 12-year-olds. How was it that we couldn't find a suitable honor a smidge more proximal – say, on the same continent? This, I was convinced, signified all that was wrong with our rampantly overindulgent sports culture – if "sports culture" wasn't a contradiction in terms.

I was in the minority. Everyone else was excited, including my daughter. So I suppressed my correct but apparently obsolete sense of perspective and uttered the time-honored words of parental surrender: "We'll see."

Now, any good trip consists of three stages: the preparation, the travel, and the unpacking – by which I don't just mean the emptying of a suitcase, but sifting and sorting through the experiences of the journey.

The preparation for Japan presented a considerable obstacle: cost. Team parents devised a strategy of donations and fundraisers, a key to which was having the players pitch in with as much elbow grease as was reasonably possible.

As the fundraising began, what emerged was a certain industriousness in the kids as they washed cars, sold baked goods, retailed rummage items – and begged. OK, they weren't soccer mendicants driven to the streets by Faginesque parents. They solicited funds for an intercultural trip primarily from organizations inclined to support such things. The task built character and conveyed real-world lessons in cost, risk, and rejection.

Along the way, the kids became articulate, adept, even emboldened. With support from extended family, community groups, the city, and private companies, the 19 girls raised enough to pay their own way.

Thus we were able to begin the second stage, boarding a plane to Japan, putting the "travel" in travel team with unprecedented zeal. We were bound for the small city of Fu­ji­nomiya, but the real destination was a place way out of their comfort zone.

In sports, "out of your comfort zone" is the very nature of an away game. But never had the team experienced it so totally – linguistically, gastronomically, even climatically. The heat in Fujinomiya was withering, containing a powerful paralytic agent unknown in Los Angeles: humidity. But lining up for a team bow to the opposing coach was a novel custom that proved to be, well, no sweat. And at the end of the games, the players found a way to overcome the language barrier through the Japanese tradition of giving small gifts.

As pins and decals from respective hometowns changed hands, smiles blossomed and camaraderie was born. Yet the biggest lessons were off the field. The players stayed with Japanese families. They learned traditional Japanese dance, how to catch guppies in rice fields, and what it means to honor your ancestors during the Obon festival. They doffed their shoes at the doorways, donned kimonos, and learned the ineffably polite expression that Japanese may use upon entering a home, "Ojama shimasu" ("I will now honorably bother you"). They absorbed lesson after lesson on the differences between East and West and the universality of human beings.

I gleaned a few things as well. Seeing another culture through my 12-year-old's eyes had its own revelations: temples and shrines that fascinated me could be taken or left; snow monkeys, on the other hand, were incredible. And ice cream is universal.

Perhaps most of all, I found that a sporting event is an excellent way to focus a trip, imbuing the journey with something we so often misplace – purpose. The goal, in the end, was not to score more goals, but to discover the fruits of another world. That furnished me one additional meal upon our return – humble pie – because "sports culture," I have learned, isn't necessarily a contradiction in terms.

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