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Parents Blog

Susan Boyd blogs on USYouthSoccer.org every Monday.  A dedicated mother and wife, Susan offers a truly unique perspective into the world of a "Soccer Mom". 

 

Dramatic Effect

Susan Boyd

Does art imitate life or does life imitate art? Experts argue that literary and visual presentations impact our social experience to the point of changing how we interact. As to what imitates what when it relates to sports, we can see both angles. Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen how much life and art intersect. A few examples demonstrate how closely fiction and reality align. “When the Game Stands Tall” details the aftermath for a high school football team whose 151 winning streak collapses in a loss. What might be expected to be a reality check on dramatic exaggeration in fictional movies, the documentary “Trophy Kids” ends up reinforcing the details. It follows five kids in four sports, all of whom are driven by overzealous parents. “Varsity Blues,” a fictional film about high school football in a small Texas town, shows the underbelly of youth sports as displayed by an abusive coach, an overbearing father, and a “winning at any cost” philosophy. With a lighter touch, the Will Ferrell soccer movie, “Kicking and Screaming,” shows how the psychological scars we earn in youth sports can follow us into adulthood. Whether fictional or real, the characters and their behaviors are equally disturbing. Within the context of youth sports, the broad range of outcomes positive and negative can be found in artistic presentations.

“When the Game Stands Tall” carries the disclaimer, “Inspired by True Events,” meaning that some license was taken. I researched its story after I saw it because I was fascinated that so many dramatic elements could actually exist in one remarkable history. I discovered that most of the narrative was factual. Minor discrepancies for dramatic purposes included a significant game, which was actually played three years before the end of the streak, a devastating second loss that never happened, and two composite players: One, a cocky kid who felt he was God’s gift to the team and, naturally, learns the lesson of humility in the course of the film, and the second, a hotshot running back who was fighting to break the state touchdown record. It’s the second player who I suspected wasn’t real, not because of the subplot of him possibly breaking the record, but because of his relationship with his father. The man was the stereotypical “stage dad” micro-managing his kid’s career, even punching him in the stomach after he failed to make a touchdown when tackled on the two yard line. The battle between father and son got really heated in the front seat of their car when the son accused dad of wanting the touchdown title for his own egotistical reasons, another “trophy to put on the shelf to show how great you are.” In a rage at being challenged, the dad attacks his son, grabs his throat and demands, “Tell me you’ll break the record; promise me you’ll break the record.” The confrontation was difficult to watch because the pain was raw even if imaginary. This fictional element ended up ringing far too true as evidenced by the documentary “Trophy Kids.” A football dad mistreats his son physically, and even more psychologically. The pain in the kid’s eyes during this abuse was haunting. In an attempt to motivate his son, he belittles him. Like déjà vu, the son dares to challenge his father in their car. He explodes. When the son finally exits the car, his mother tries to reason with the father. “He doesn’t respect you. He’s afraid of you. You’re making him scared and insecure.” The father responds, “I’m teaching him to be a man” as the film cuts to the boy sitting on the curb sobbing.

Jon Voight in “Varsity Blues” plays Bud Kilmer, the stereotypical domineering coach that all players fear, but parents love because he gets the job done and brings glory to the football-obsessed town. Kilmer has been coaching for decades and has brought back state and district championships. In the highlighted season, the star quarterback injects his injured knee with anesthetic so he can continue to play, and naturally he blows it out. The coach, who ordered the shot, feigns no knowledge of the injury, a behavior indicating that his focus is on the win not on the players. The backup quarterback, “Mox” Moxon, is reluctantly called upon to step up to play. His football-crazy father, who spent his time under Coach Kilmer warming the bench, wants his son to go on to play Division I football. Instead, Mox wants to attend Brown on an academic scholarship. The climax comes when another player suffers a knee injury during the championship game. Kilmer again orders that the knee be injected so the kid can get back on the field. Mox refuses to reenter the field if that occurs, and the team agrees. Kilmer, realizing he is losing control of the situation, attacks Mox, then attempts to use the attack as a motivator. As coach runs on to the field for the second half, he realizes he is alone.  Considering how much power a coach wields and how intimidated players can be, it begs the question would a team really stand up for what is right.  

Then I read the case of Brian Seamons, a member of a Utah high school football team. Brian was hazed in a particularly brutal manner after exiting the team showers. He contacted school authorities and the police who passed the complaint on to the coach, Doug Snow. Snow suggested Brian meet with the team captains who were two of his assailants to see if they could find some way to resolve this. The captains told Brian he had betrayed the team by reporting the assault and should not be allowed to play until he apologized to the team. The coach agreed and, when Brian refused to apologize, sent him home so he couldn’t play in that night’s game. Brian returned to the coach the next week and stated that he did not owe the team an apology. Snow said he found Brian’s attitude unacceptable and removed him from the team. So Brian sued on the basis of violation of his First Amendment right to free speech. The local court denied his suit and said the school couldn’t be held responsible, but an appeals court overturned that decision. Eventually the coach was fired.

On a lighter note, but with serious undertones, “Kicking and Screaming” details the difficulties with not only being the parent of a player, but being the coach of your own child. Will Ferrell plays Phil Weston, the son of Buck Weston, the winningest youth soccer coach in the district. Phil spent his playing days riding the bench on his father’s team and receiving plenty of belittling comments. Two decades later, he has to watch his own son face the same humiliation at the hands of Buck. The Gladiators are the best team, but to protect him, Phil has his son, Sam, transferred to the worst team, the Tigers, where he happily plays until the fateful day when the coach doesn’t show. In order to avoid a forfeit, Phil agrees to step in, beginning a transformation to the very type of coach his father is — arrogant, bullying, obnoxious and competitive — much to the dismay of Sam and his teammates. Adding to the mix are two Italian boys, newly immigrated to the U.S., who join the team as star players. Soon the chant becomes, “Give the ball to the Italians.” Phil’s obsession with winning takes the joy out of the game for the kids. The he brazenly challenges his father to a match in order to avenge all his childhood pain. In the midst of the game, as he screams at the kids because of their poor play, he sees their dejection and agony. Realizing that he has the wrong priorities, he lets the boys know that win or lose, he’ll be proud of them. He encourages them to have fun. Because this is the land of happy endings, the Tigers naturally win with Sam scoring the winning goal. Although the ending is saccharine and expected, there’s a warm hopefulness that comes from the moment which I encourage more parents and coaches to realize — the idea that having fun can lead to winning, though it may not and that’s okay too.

I wonder if there are parents and coaches who will see these films and have a mirror thrust in their faces. Will they recognize themselves in the fictional characters, or more to the point, in the real life characters? Will they turn away and deny they’re as bad as or possibly even worse than what’s depicted? When I thought that the running back’s battle with his father couldn’t be real maybe that was wishful thinking on my part because I’ve sat next to parents at soccer who reproach their child’s teammates and hold their kid to extremely high standards. I’ve witnessed post-game yelling sessions where a dad is in his child’s face accusing the player of not caring enough or being weak or slacking off. There is never any praise — these sessions are all about laying blame. If I saw them in a movie (just like I did this week) my reaction would be, “how melodramatic” and “clearly exaggerated to make a point.” Then I remember what I’ve seen. Life imitating art. Could an aggressive parent be jolted into changing his or her behaviors by seeing these parent/child interactions on the screen? I’d hope so, but I’m pretty sure the scenes would be rationalized and minimized. We parents want to believe that we can motivate our children to greatness by being tough on them. The reality is that many of those children end up quitting the game.

I have been helping on a set of video instructions for the F license offered by USSF. The license is meant for volunteer parent coaches of 5 to 10-year-old players. One video is on Coaching Philosophy and includes a brief explanation about why kids quit sports and why they stay with sports. Kids quit because of criticism and outcome-driven play. When only wins are seen as success, we set kids up for failure because even a team with 151 consecutive wins eventually loses. Most teams lose a quarter to over a half of their games, so equating wins with success and losses with failure leaves kids ping ponging between narrow singular outcomes. Add the burden of criticism even if they win, and no one would want to keep playing. Kids stay committed to a sport and motivated to step onto the playing field when they are having fun. They need to see they are improving, that they get to be with friends, wear cool stuff, and develop a sports identity. Winning doesn’t enter the picture. Certainly winning is fun, breaking a record is awesome, and being a champion boosts the ego, but only a small sliver of players and teams get to attain those conquests. Most teams live in the world of average, and yet those players keep coming back and enjoying themselves because they get out of the sport more than the thrill of a win. The parent that demands perfection often ends up with a flawed child — maybe not athletically, but in other ways. In the “Game,” they talk about making the perfect effort meaning each player commits to a set of goals and does his best to achieve them. But it’s not the achievement that’s significant; it’s the effort.

I hope we can learn from art to lead better lives. While we may rationalize that dramatic license has been taken, we also have to see the grain of truth on which the scene is built. Likewise, we can’t minimize what happens in our lives because those events aren’t as dramatic or serious as what we see in fictional media. The arts can be an enticing inspiration for our behaviors because make believe can present an appealing perfect outcome. Our kids don’t always have the context in which to measure that appeal, but we can guide them. Likewise, when something in the arts hits home, we need to use those vignettes as teachable moments. After you see a movie or TV show about sports, ask your child what rang true and what rang false about the program. If the presentation purports to be true, research and find out how close to reality it actually comes. Talk about why the writer and director changed things up. Help kids to develop the analytical skills to be able to decipher what’s right and what’s wrong. Seeing what happens both in life and in art can provide lessons that will support our children throughout youth sports and give us parents food for thought.

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The 50/50 Blog: 9.2.14

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The 50/50 Blog: 8.29.14

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The 50/50 Blog: 8.27.14

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