Wednesday, May 11, 2005

What are we teaching our kids about sportsmanship?

Last Saturday was the last game of the Spring season for my daughters' team, the Titans. Our girls lost the game 2-1 to a team that I believe is not as good as ours. I don't think we lost because of a biased ref or bad calls. I can't say we lost because our girls didn't put forth the effort it takes to win. There are many reasons our team did not win. One reason is that our girls (I am assistant coach) did not know how to handle the sort of tactics used by the opposing team, particularly their coaches. The other team's coach encourages his kids to knock people down, pinch and step on feet when the referee is not looking, and intimidate through words. These same coaches complained throughout the game when their own girls fell down or got bumped during the normal course of play. One coach said to one of our players, "Too bad you suck!" as she went down the sideline and after the game refused to shake hand with any coaches or players.

What we have here is a sort of disconnect between the I'm a victim and Win at all costs mentalities. I see this professional sports all the time and I remember running into these sorts of players and coaches when I was involved with sports. Perhaps there is a little of this in all sports fanatics. But when a coach of young people feels the need to act this way, especially toward young children, then something is very wrong. For these people, it is not the momentary lapse of reason that one has when supporting a team. This is a lifelong attitude.

I'm not sure what can be taught to kids on the other team unless their parents see the problem and step in. But I have to teach our girls, or at least try. And the lessons they learn from this experience cannot be taught in a locker room session or discussion at the next practice. Surely kids need to know such people exist, and they need tools to deal with them. I certainly was not prepared to give this lesson, though I knew they were poor sports.

A few games ago, I had a run in of sorts with a different opposing coach. Our girls were winning quite handily and he made some comments about running up the score. I snapped back at him something inappropriate. He yelled at me. I yelled at him. Our conversation got quite heated. I knew I crossed a line when a curse word came out of my mouth. I stepped back, but he was too upset to let it go...for the moment. The referee had to stop the game to tell us to focus and to consider the girls on the field (most of whom, I believe) did not even notice what was going on.

The next week, when tempers were cooled, this coach made an effort to come speak to me and to our other coaches and apologize. I did the same. We both recognized that we had lost sight of the reasons we were out there: the kids. I have a great deal of respect for this coach. His own frustration, I believe, came from what he perceived as a slight against his girls. He wants to win, but he wants more to see those girls get something positive out of the experience of playing soccer. And forgive the sexist comment, but he acted like a man, not only in apologizing, but in being gracious in accepting my apology. That he treated my team with the dignity and respect he expects others to treat his team, I think teaches my girls as well as his, some of the important lessons that show why sports itself can be valuable.

Awhile ago the coach of my daughter's team got very caught up in a game and spent a lot of time screaming at the kids, the referee, and others. This is a person who I respected, a man who had taught my girl a great deal and improved not only her play, but her self-esteem. After a time, he wrote an email to all the parents apologizing for his actions. At the next practice, he took each girl aside individually and apologized to them. That took guts I know most people don't have, but I will think of him every time someone like the jerk I mentioned above comes along. We always say, "It's all about the kids" and "People need to take responsibility for their actions." But here I saw it. I think it is obvious what these people teach not just to kids, but to all of us on the lifelong journey for self-improvement.

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