June 9, 2008

how small minded can you be?

A fellow blogger I greatly admire and also now greatly fear, Ello, posted a most excellent rant about the bad sportsmanship a soccer mom showed at a game recently. Many readers commented on the dilution of competitiveness in kids' sports these days and how it's dragging society down into the depths of mediocrity.

I say fie, mediocrity is not being created on the soccer pitch in the under-10 leagues. It's not even being created by the "everybody gets a trophy" attitude for nine year olds. Sports can teach our kids so much, if done the right way, but what lessons, and at what ages?

My coaching has been in recreational leagues, which fits my style. Both the Under-9 boys and the Over-30 mens team I've coached have ended up the same--mediocre win/loss records. But I always had nearly full attendance and at the end of the year everyone always commented how much fun it had been. I also played on and saw teams with much better win percentages where, by the end of the season, attendance had dwindled and players grumbled. As a coach of recreational teams, I believe that if you pay your money and you show up, you get equal playing time, outcome of the game be damned.

And here's my rant: The under-10 boys league I coach in has a very strict policy that the league determines rosters and that coaches and parents are not allowed to specify what teams or players they want. Pretty much every communication from the league emphasizes this, and it's clearly emblazoned in the registration materials.

But last year in the U-9s, one dad created a new team out of our elementary school and literally handed his roster to the league. With two exceptions, he got an entire roster of the biggest, fastest, strongest, most skilled players. His roster was loaded. Another coach was livid and complained a blue streak to no avail. I just rolled my eyes, took the kids I was given, and resolved to give them the best coaching I could while ensuring they had fun all year, win or lose.

Um, we lost. Mostly. A lot. In the end, all the kids got medals for coming in fourth in the bottom division tournament (that means they came in 10th out of 12). A reward for mediocrity? Not in my view. It's a keepsake for a year full of fun. At the end of the year, one of the least athletic boys who started the season pretty lame at soccer, told his mom that when he grew up he wanted to be either a marine biologist or a professional soccer player. There's little doubt which he's more likely to become, but still I think that's an indicator that our season was a huge success.

But during the season, we played that stacked team, and although we lost 7 to 1, I felt sorry for the kids on the other team. Our league has a "good sportsmanship" rule that says if you win by more than six goals, you actually lose three points in the standings. So, when we played this stacked team, they got their six goals in the first half. In the second half, their coach had to keep the goalie and three of the seven field players inside the defensive 18 yard box so they wouldn't be so dominant. So, while my kids were playing hard and having fun trying their best, those kids were bored. They might as well have been on the bench.

But the coaches actually were happy with the game. They actually thought the victory was the important thing. And I just shake my head and wonder why. My kids came off the field tired and happy and ready for their snack and gatorade, knowing they got blown out but by the afternoon not a one of them cared. What they remembered was their one good pass, their one good tackle, their one shot that was almost a goal. (Which, of course, it wasn't anywhere near being.)

There are times when winning is the only important thing. When the best participate and the rest watch. When losing hurts so bad you want to kick the dog (but don't, of course, because kicking dogs is to be frowned upon). But when kids are 8 years old... No. Absolutely not. The only thing that matters (besides no injuries) is that everyone be allowed to have fun.


Blogless Troll said...

Missed Ello's post. I'll have to go read it.

I've coached Little League (6, 7, and 8-year olds) for the last two years, and it's the same everywhere. You've always got your percentage of idiots who place winning above everything else, to the point of chewing out these kids if they miss a ground ball. With young kids you're teaching them how to play the game and have fun so they'll love it and come back next year. You want to teach the kids to compete, but as long as they play hard and have fun, what more can you ask at that age?

This year for the draft, I pulled the 9 out of the hat, so I got 9th pick out of 9 teams. (Tried to convince them it was a 6, but they didn't buy it.) Anyway, we didn't have nearly the talent this year that we did last year when we were stacked and lost only one game. But this year, for me anyway, was much more fun and satisfying. We didn't win a lot, but we never got blown out either, and our kids were always into the game and paying attention (which didn't always happen last year), and having fun, and because of that they played way above the level everyone had expected them to.

One of the coaches on a "good team" refused to shake our hands after a game because we came back and beat them in the last inning. I got into a shouting match with another coach during another game. Briefly: the coaches are allowed to be on the field with their team to "coach" them on defense. This guy thought it was okay to stand behind the pitcher's mound and shout, "STRIKE TWO!" when our 7-year old batter swung and missed. He has since reconsidered his stance on that matter.

Sorry for the long comment. Great post.

PS - I'm getting a login and password pop-up when the jpegs are trying load.

PJD said...

Thanks, BT. I've fixed the JPGs.

Interesting that you have a draft for talent in the little league. We don't to that in soccer here, and I don't know if they do it in baseball (I don't think so).

And thanks for summarizing my feelings in your comment: You want to teach the kids to compete, but as long as they play hard and have fun, what more can you ask at that age?


Blogless Troll said...

Yeah, in the spring we have tryouts and a draft, and in the fall we get our rosters handed to us. I prefer the draft. Talent wise they're all pretty much the same after the fifth round, but I have an uncanny knack for picking the "NOT bratty shithead" kids. That alone is worth it.

Lily said...

I coached U8's girls' soccer one year and it was enough for me with that league. I had a mother call me every week to talk "strategy" on how we could win. Her most frequent suggestion: Since the league didn't call offsides for U8's I should plant her daughter by the goal post and tell everyone to pass it to her.

We lost a lot. That didn't bother me, but I couldn't stand the crazy parents.

I felt somewhat vindicated when the leagues new coaching director that year observed my coaching during one of the games and told me, "You are losing but it is because you are one of the few coaches who haven't taught their team to play offsides, you are actually teaching them how to play soccer."

It was nice to hear, but I was still done.

Unknown said...

I coached two soccer teams this year... my first foray into coaching. It was a blast.

The teams were 4-5 year olds and 8-9 year olds, and in both cases, we consistently had about 6 kids show up (out of 8). So we had almost enough for a team, and more often than not had to borrow a player from the other teams. But everybody played, everybody kicked the ball, everybody had fun.

On the younger team, we had a kid who was a remarkable player, in the sense that he was paying attention for almost the whole game and could generally make the ball go in the right direction without falling down too often. I was disgusted by the comments by opposing coaches and parents from other teams, insisting that I make this 5 year old stay on defense (at 5, *nobody* stays on defense!) or, worse yet, "sit the quarter out" because he was too good.

One coach even physically kicked the ball away from little Taylor, booting it 1/2 way down the field. He would have done it again (and again and again) if I hadn't intervened and insisted we let the kids do the playing.

So, it was a very fun season, but definitely an eye-opener as I saw the way some grownups behave around kids playing sports.

Robin S. said...


It's a shame that one guy was allowed to circumvent the stated rules. I'm not athletic at all.
My brother got all of it. But I know when he coached kid's football and baseball - he wouldn't abide unsportsmanlike conduct, from the kids or form the parents. My brother looks like he could play professional football - so generally speaking if he gives someone a certain look, they shut the hell up anyway.

But he agrees with you - the game is the thing, as long as the point of it, the working together, the team spirit, the learnng curve, the learning to be a good loser AND a generous winner, isn't lost.

Don't get me wrong. He's competitive as hell. But he wanted his kids to learn a lot more than simply how to win. He was a really good coach.

P.S. If he'd seen that bitch in ello's rant, he'd have gone after her - interestingly - unlike me, he can stay calm when he's fired up.

He'd really have enjoyed making her look like the fool she was - using this (fake) quiet voice thing he can do, whe
n he's into shaming-someone mode.

McKoala said...

Our kids (soccer under 8s) are one of those winning teams. I've whinged about it on my blog, because, honestly I don't think it's good for them to win every game (except one - against a team that listened to their coach and hadn't got sloppy like our kids had by winning everything). On the plus side, they're having fun. On the negative side, they're not learning how to play better. Most of them are good players individually, but without a challenge they haven't learned to play as a team.

At least we play fair. We take the strong kids off, we reduce our numbers, we do everything we can not to win. We give awards for good manners as often as we do for goals. And we still win by heaps, making the other team feel bad and our team feel cocky, both of which make us, as parents, feel bad. We've asked for regrading, but it can't be done right now.

And now Princess wants to play. The team that have invited her to join have scored five goals - all season. But she just wants to have fun and I think she'll have a ball and genuinely won't give a hoot about winning or losing. Yee haw.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

Now you know how my husband feels! He fears me greatly - and that is how it should be! ;o)

GReat post Pete! And your style of coaching is exactly like my husband's so I commend you! In our neck of the woods, it's about 50/50 on asshole coaches and nice coaches. The assholes are out there screaming at their kids and making them feel bad when they lose. The good coaches are out there making sure their kids have fun. And I know it is not fun to lose lots of games and have blowouts but if your coach can still show the team to have a good time even when losing, I say that is a great success. My daughter's league divides the teams into two levels, first tier and second tier. First tier had more wins than losses, second tier the opposite. My daughter's team was in the middle of the second tier. The team they beat 5-0 was the second rated team on the first tier. They had a winning season while we had a losing season. And yet they couldn't handle loss whatsoever. How ridiculous is this? So Saturday's game was the last game of the season and all the girls went out and played their heart out. It was the type of game you wish you could see them play all the time. And they were ectstatic. But you know, when they lose a game 7-0 like they did to the best team in the league, the girls still had fun and the parents on our team still cheered and congratulated the other team.

I hate poor sportmanship. It is one of my biggest gripes. I don't think that the issue is we are teaching mediocrity. Cause I don't care about that. We all need to teach our kids that we aren't perfect at eveything. That is a life lesson. However, I am concerned about parents and coaches who teach their players that being a bad sport is acceptable. That it is ok to pull your hand away so you don't shake another player's hand, or that you can sneer and curse at the other team or that it is ok to belittle the other coach in front of his players. That's just not right and should not be condoned.

Anonymous said...

*creating the logo to Uncle PJ's House of Syrup* - Participate. Have fun. Drink Beer!

No, wait.

Thanks for the post, Pete. It sent me over to Ello's where I got bitchy myself. So now I'm here to be loopy and pretend I have multiple personality disorder.


pacatrue said...

I was discussing this with my wife just a few days ago. My older brother was an all star pitcher, one of the best in the state. I was one of the kids that they put in for the required two innings in left field and then immediately took out. Why did my bro take to it and I didn't? Most of it is natural talent and interest, but the right coach at this age is critical. I remember not being good at t-ball either, but really enjoying playing. But when I moved up to Little League, I knew the coaches didn't want me in there and didn't really want me on their team. It was a killer, I'm guessing, interest-wise. On the other hand, I had a tennis coach starting at 5 who coached everyone the same. We all got to practice with her and we all got to be in the little tournaments. I stuck with tennis for 7-8 years, but was out of Little League as soon as I didn't think my parents would be mad.

Incidentally, my brother coached Little League a few years ago and apparently gave up after a year or two. He seemed to follow a philosophy similar to yours and got a lot of flack for it.

JaneyV said...

If my kids liked soccer and we lived in your neck of the woods - I'd want them to have you as a coach and I bet they would too!

Great post Pete!

PJD said...

dan, that is remarkable that a coach would kick the ball away from a kid, particularly a little kid. that's a coach that should be banned from coaching.

robin, I hate the fake-quiet-voice thing. It is so effective, and I have no skill at it. I just give people this "what evil planet are you from" kind of hurt puppy dog eyes look, and some of them realize what gits they've been.

mcK, don't feel bad about winning. If you're winning with class and grace, then the other teams probably don't mind being beat. I recently played against a phenomenally good over-30 mens team. They beat us 6-1 (and our goal was a 40-yard fluke), but it was a really fun game because both teams played with respect for the game and for each other.

ello--right on! bad sportsmanship sux. It's been a very hard lesson for my older son to learn. It's just part of his temperament to be devastated by losing, and we've been working all his life to help him deal with that. His little brother, though--win or lose, for him the play is the point.

aerin, ROTFLMAO. But I think I'll save the beer for the over-30 league and not bring any to the under-10s.

paca, thanks for your comment. Unlike your brother, I didn't get any flack for my attitude or method (in fact, the parents on my team appreciated it). We just lost a lot of games. But maybe I'm just covering bad coaching by calling it a good attitude? I get the feeling baseball has more intense parents, at least around here. It's too bad your brother found it so bad he had to drop out.

Jane... aren't you in England? And your kids don't like soccer? Is this some side effect of global warming or something?

JaneyV said...

As team games go - Rugby is king in my house! I may live in England but I'm Irish and soccer isn't my thing. My children appear to have inherited their Dad's lack of hand/eye and foot/eye coordination. They all hate ball games. They prefer swimming!