All over playing fields this month, youngsters and their parents have begun an annual rite signaling that spring truly has arrived: the beginning of the outdoor soccer season.

Kids as young as 4 take to the fields in shorts that hang to their ankles and shin guards that make them feel cool, and begin to learn the meaning of a new word: pressure.They already are old enough to know "fun." They understand "game." They have a solid handle on "play." But "pressure"? For just about all of them, that's a new one.

By the end of the season, they still may not have heard the word itself, and they may not be able to define it. But a lot of them will know the feeling. So will a lot of coaches. So will a lot of referees.

Anyone who says soccer isn't exciting has never had a son or daughter score that first goal or make that game-saving tackle or smother that penalty kick just as it seems certain to flash across the goal line.

But of course there's a flip side to all of those positive plays. For every goal that's scored, there's a youngster who feels at fault. For every solid tackle, there's a kid who gave up the ball. For every great diving stop by a goalkeeper, there's a shooter who didn't hit the ball quite far enough toward the corner of the net.

Fortunately, for every cheering parent who goes home proud (after the obligatory stop at the ice cream stand), there is not necessarily a parent berating a child for the frailties competition can expose. A few do, but not many.

Much more common are the ones who get caught up in the heat of the battle out there on the scaled-down field, who groan (or even cheer) a little too loudly, who pay a little too much attention to the score, who offer a little too much advice, who are a little too dedicated to charting everyone's playing time.

They're trying to be good, supportive moms and dads. I have done what they're doing. I coach two of my kids' teams, but with two others I'm just another spectator. And I have to resist the temptation to "help" too much.

It's tough, though. At a coaching clinic I attended recently, some 12- and 13-year-old boys were brought in to be guinea pigs for those of us undergoing the training. During a drill in which the trainee of the moment wanted the boys to shoot the ball as often as possible, the kids weren't shooting. All of us felt for the coach, who was trying to pass the course by showing that he could get the boys to respond to him.

After a couple of minutes watching kids pass up good shots while looking for perfect ones, the rest of us started shouting, "Shoot, Shoot, SHOOT!" whenever somebody new touched the ball. One of the trainee-coaches watching from the sidelines turned to another and said, "Listen to us. We sound just like the parents."

He was right. It was sobering for about two seconds, then we all cracked up.

It's not always funny, though. On a team of 8- and 9-year-old girls I worked with a couple of years ago, one player would always ask to play a position on the coaches' side of the field. She would get rattled by all of the advice from her dad if she was on the spectators' side. She's a good player who always does her best; he's a good dad who always wants her to succeed. The combination added up to pressure.

Good players put pressure on themselves, and it's amazing how young some of them begin to do so. Good coaches put pressure on players, too - a positive sort of pressure that says to a child, "I know you can do this. I see the ability in you, and I wouldn't ask you to do something you're not ready for or capable of. Give it your best effort, and if you don't get it this time, we'll practice it some more."

Does that remove the disappointment of failure? Of course not. And that's why parents have to remember that part of their job is to be a comforter sometimes, not always a prodder.

Parents who keep their children's sports in the proper perspective actually promote enjoyment of the game for everyone - players, coaches, referees, other parents and even their own. Soccer is way down the list of the most important things anyone will ever do in life.

So, rejoice in moderation at successes, console and encourage as needed through failures, and don't be afraid to call those events by their right names. Kids can see a snow job a mile away. They know whether they have played well.

Above all, remember how young they are. Kids tend to magnify the importance of things. That makes it doubly important for parents to maintain perspective on what's really important.