Monday, October 26, 2009
This past weekend my grandson's undefeated team met the other undefeated team in his league. One team had to lose and that team was my grandson's. Although they scored right away, that would be it for them. Their opponents scored several times, including a score in the waning seconds of the game. It wasn't just a defeat; it was a rout. When you're nine, lessons on the value of defeat don't really penetrate and bring life altering enlightenment. On the other hand, the agony of defeat has a half-life equal to the time it takes to walk from the field over to the snack cooler. As Coach Darrell Royal said, "I learned this about coaching: You don't have to explain victory and you can't explain defeat." It's true whether you're a kid or a multi-million dollar pro. But the role of coach changes over the years. Cutthroat can work with adults, but is far too heavy-handed for youth. Kids are still developing a passion for the game which isn't served by a coach being overly passionate for success.
Being a youth coach ranks as one of the most difficult jobs around. You need to deal with short attention spans, behavior problems, delicate egos, tantrums, and unrealistic expectations – and that's just the parents! Coaches need to be teachers, counselors, arbitrators, prophets, handlers, healers, schedulers, and cheerleaders. Most youth coaches are also parents of players on the team, so they have to step in and out of their coach and parent roles. It used to be that youth coaches were just thrown into the soup without preparation. Some might have extensive playing experience or some may have had soccer in 8th
grade gym. So it's no wonder that youth coaching can be uneven. However U.S. Youth Soccer Association and United States Soccer Federation have taken steps to make youth coaching more professional and standard. They require any youth coach in their programs to attend a course and receive a coaching certificate. The course is brief, but does help put every coach at an equal starting point.
Victories and defeats can end up defining the strength of a coach. Not because a coach oversees more victories than defeats, but because the coach has developed a way to be a strong role model and leader during either event. The old adage about being humble in victory and gracious in defeat has to be taught by example. Too many coaches want to be Vince Lombardi with his attitude that "if you can accept losing, you can't win." Losses result in long diatribes about failure and weakness and incompetence. Wins end up being an excuse to insult the opposing team and reward arrogance. Wise youth coaches opt for a positive appraisal without the agonizing dissection to ferret out the weaknesses leading to defeat.
There's definitely something to be said for having a winning outlook. But the truth is that even the Miami Dolphins eventually lost a game. Winning over and over can indicate that a team isn't being challenged. And most of us face challenges in our lives with varying degrees of success. We need to learn how to deal with the less successful outcomes – dare I say defeats – with character and perseverance, developing the ability to improve. Malcolm Forbes, who could be the poster boy for success, said that "victory is sweetest when you've known defeat." So coaches need to infuse the playing experience with a joy that transcends the outcome. It's not about winning or losing at this age. It's about developing an interest in and a passion for the sport.
The glory of victory and the humiliation of defeat don't need to be taught. Over the years all of us innately learn that the former is far more desirable than the latter. But because kids are both resilient and short of memory, we can't feed them our anxieties and expectations for game outcomes. Keaton's team lost, but he didn't lose his love for playing. In fact he got to play a different position at the end of the game, which got him very excited about being on offense rather than defense. He's fired up for the next game, which is exactly the way it should all play out. His league has the last two games set up to be between teams with equal or near equal records. So it's very possible he'll meet this team again and maybe even lose again. But I applaud his coaches for making the game and the love of the game far more important than marks in a win or loss column. If he stays with it, he'll have plenty of time to get the speech about "defeat is not an option." Done right, it may even inspire him to give the extra bit needed to carve out a victory. But for now, it's enough to be able to get a granola bar and a juice box win or lose.