Monday, August 10, 2009
Today I heard the song "Charlie Brown" while eating lunch and one line struck me. After the chorus, a baritone voice intones, "Why is everybody always picking on me?" I know soccer players feel that way more times than they care to admit. They get told what to do, what they did wrong, what they could have done, why they can't live up to expectations, and when they should just get lost – often all in the same sentence. Sometimes the criticism comes in the form of well-intentioned enthusiastic involvement from fans and teammates and sometimes it's just mean spirited bullying. The results are confusion, self-doubt, and frustration.
I've watched pint-sized players spin their heads around like they were auditioning for "The Exorcist." The coach on the sidelines barks an order, grandpa on the opposite sideline offers his take on the situation, dad behind the net suggests an alternative theory, and Penny running towards the goal issues her own request. By the time little Jenny filters everything through her brain and tries to do what she feels is the right move, the moment has passed and a whole new retinue of commands have been issued. How can six-year-old Derrick possibly know what to do when it is raining instruction? He ends up taking two steps forward, two steps back, and never doing anything other than look panicked. While we all mean well with our "encouraging words," we actually end up contributing to a bunch of white noise.
Once we recognize how we are creating confusion we can censor ourselves and focus on more generalized support such as "great job" and "way to go." But unfortunately some of the sideline comments dissolve into belittling. This denigration could be classified as bullying because it elicits the same response in those player recipients. We are so used to shouting at the TV or anonymously in a baseball stadium of 45,000 that we forget the things we bellow on the sidelines can be heard by the players who aren't seasoned professionals hardened to comments and financially compensated for their participation. These are young kids with developing egos who want to please and worry they are failures if they can't. Parents tearing down a kid can cause great harm. One of Robbie's friends left a team because a teammate's father tore into him so often and so vehemently that he just couldn't play any longer in those circumstances. His coach tried to help, but he couldn't be on both sides of the field. Despite numerous requests to tone it down, this dad seemed unable to. The best control can come from other parents who talk to offenders and get them to see the error of their ways. We all have a responsibility to protect the kids on the field especially those who aren't yet in high school.
It's not just adults who have a problem. A player can become a bully if he or she doesn't feel a teammate is fulfilling his or her responsibilities on the field. Someone may end up picking on a player on the field and then continue the abuse off the field as well. Such behavior needs to be dealt with. Coaches should clearly establish the boundaries for team banter and they need to adamantly oppose any sort of bullying. As parents we need to listen to our children to hear any evidence of being bullied or being a bully and then we need to address it. Young players get influenced by the frenzy to win that they experience watching professional teams in the company of their parents. They want to find a scapegoat if the team isn't doing well, so a player could be targeted. While support from the fans creates a positive atmosphere for a team, it's probably more important that the players have a positive attitude with one another. For young players teammates are also friends, so the ramifications of being bullied extend beyond practices and games.
When a game goes badly it's natural for frustrations bubble to the surface. None of us are perfect, but we can all aspire to be better. As players get older and games count more for things like the US Youth Soccer National Championship Series and high school championships and tournament trophies the positive comments get peppered with criticism and "suggestions." With older teams, the players are more serious about the sport and often have aspirations beyond high school, so they will face more and more of the fan reactions pro players get. But we do need to be respectful of our youngest players and keep it positive. Rather than a melancholy refrain, we should be hearing, "I'm glad everybody's always supporting me."