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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". 

 

Let It Snow, Let It Snow?

Susan Boyd

It snowed again this week – AGAIN. We’re not Boston deep here, but deep enough to be chronically covered in a white blanket. In a phone conversation with my grandson in Columbus, Ohio, he told me his outdoor baseball tryouts had been pushed back a week, a timeline I found remarkably optimistic. Right now the only outdoor team sport we could play here would be if I formed a snowshoe Frisbee league. Home Depot has started advertising for spring planting. This requires three important factors: 1) The ability to actually see real earth; 2) The soil is thawed enough to dig for planting; and 3) You can trust that winter won’t suddenly return. I figure events should merge around June 1 for us here. Right now I’m watching on TV workers clearing snowy slush off the Rockefeller Ice Rink so Evan Lysacek can perform. This same slush led to a plane skidding on the runway at La Guardia Airport, luckily without serious consequences. Kentucky, a state one doesn’t normally associate with blizzard conditions, had hundreds of motorists stranded on snow-clogged freeways for the better part of 24 hours. I truly believe Punxsutawney Phil is a genius.

The weather affects so many of our sports. Due to a snow emergency in November, the NFL game at Buffalo against the Jets was moved to Detroit, not exactly a winter friendly location either. They said it was for the safety of fans. Nice sentiments, but there was also the problem of getting the Jets into Buffalo where no jets (aircrafts or players) were landing or taking off, and no guarantees that if they could get to Buffalo they’d be able to get back out. I’ve actually driven from Buffalo to Detroit, which takes about 4 hours going through Canada, not counting how long it takes to go through customs. So it was probably a good choice given the distance and that the arena has a roof. This week, FIFA is meeting to decide about the dates for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. In some break from reality, the country selected for that event was Qatar. Since the World Cup plays in June and July, it’s summer in the Northern Hemisphere. That translates to an average temperature of 104 degrees in the DESERT nation of Qatar. So after several complaints, FIFA has agreed to consider shifting the games to November and December 2022 when the average temperature is a mere 80 degrees. Naturally, such a shift opens a whole other can of worms since countries set aside the dates in June and July. November and December are scheduled with league games, so professional teams risk losing their best players in the heart of the season. 

In 2006, the NCAA Division I Men’s Soccer College Cup finals were held outdoors in St. Louis. The event is always in December. So what’s wrong with this picture? The Midwest in winter seems to beg the question “what were they thinking?” just as Qatar in the summer. Naturally, there was a blizzard on Thursday with games to be played Friday and Sunday. There is always a youth tournament held in conjunction with the Cup called the Final Four Tournament. That had to be scrapped as teams were unable to get to St. Louis by air or road. Highways as far north as the Wisconsin-Illinois border and as far south as Arkansas were nearly impassable. I know this because I had started driving south with Bryce to get to the tournament. Two hours later, I was called back by the coach. The team was pulling out. By the time we arrived back home, the tournament had been canceled. Watching the Cup finals on TV between UCLA and UC Santa Barbara (yes two California schools) the snow contained by the four borders of the stadium had been plowed up to the edges of the bleachers in mounds that blocked the views from the first couple of rows. In order to do corner kicks players had to mount a pile of snow and run down it to the ball. There was merely a sliver of space along the sidelines for throw-ins.  Behind the goal a glacier had been built.  Spectators shivered on metal bleachers in 20-degree temperatures with winds lowering it even further. Ironically, the scene looked balmy and beautiful when camera focused on the center of the pitch.  The grass was green and the sun was bright.

Most clubs have an inclement weather policy. In general rain is not considered inclement weather. When kids start in youth soccer at age 6, parents assume that rain with its accompanying cold and mud would be the perfect reason to cancel a game or practice so their little precious bundles won’t be inconvenienced. Think again. Rescheduling is an enormous headache because you have to coordinate with field, referee and coach availability. Throw in holidays, school events, and other weather issues, and you can understand why teams will do anything to avoid rescheduling. I once had make over 50 phone calls before I could finally reschedule a U-8 game – that’s an age where I didn’t have to factor in things like prom, finals, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and confirmations. Whenever I thought I had everything set, there’d be another obstacle like the State Association refusing to approve the date for reasons such as the game being too close in time to the next game or failure to submit proper paperwork. That’s why even when there is lightning, teams will wait out the storm in an attempt to avoid rescheduling which occasionally isn’t even an option. When my sons played together on their high school team, the state final took over five hours due to constant lightning delays. But there was no choice. They had to complete the game that day. Luckily they were playing on a pitch with lights. Despite teams soldiering through bad weather, it never hurts to check with your club or school to make sure a game or practice will occur. There’s nothing worse than driving to an event to discover yours in the only car in the lot.

Weather should be taken seriously by all involved. Too hot and there are dangers of heat stroke and heat exhaustion; too wet or icy there are dangers of injuries due to poor footing; lightning can take out an entire team. Therefore, parents and players need to be prepared. In summer, keep a hydration and cooling kit in the trunk to include water, sport drinks, cooler with ice and cloths for putting on wrists and necks during breaks, and something for shade which is UV-rated. Sunscreen should be used on any day since the UV rays aren’t dependent on the sun being visible or the temperature being hot. Since your children will most likely be playing in the rain, you’ll need to protect against the mud and damp. Have dry clothing available, lots of plastic bags to contain the wet uniforms and muddy shoes, and towels. Be sure to have a winter kit as well (which could be useful even in May). This would include gloves, hats, warm-ups, a broom, and a shovel to help clear off those snow-covered lines. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to speak up during lightning to insure that games are halted for the duration of the strikes and for 20 minutes after. The standard is that at the first sound of thunder, the games are to stop. With all the weather apps available, we can easily see where strikes are occurring and when they are expected to pass, so there’s no excuse of ignorance. Safety is important.

Despite winter, the MLS season began March 6. Plenty of games will be played in the next week at outdoor arenas in wintery territory. Luckily, most arenas have equipment to clear the field, although they may not clear the seating area. Not so for the Green Bay Packers, who have to empty out their stands two or three times a year. They hire locals at $10 an hour to shovel out the stands onto conveyor belts that run down the aisles carrying the snow to the field where it is plowed away. That system exists because they can be guaranteed of the need. I grew up in Seattle and I can tell you the Seahawks, and by extension the Sounders, don’t have any such system. If it snows the entire area shuts down. So technically those venues in the “snow zone” may actually be safer for conducting games during the next two months than those venues who don’t expect snow. So far, MLS has been able to conduct games without problem. It will be interesting to see how long the upcoming warming and snowless break will last. Between November and April, Montreal gets on average 75 inches of snow, over six feet, most of which doesn’t melt at all during that time. New England presently has over 100 inches of snow.

The good news is that none of that snow will last. Eventually I’ll be able to see my lawn, the window boxes will revert from blocks of frozen tundra to soft, pliant soil, and at some point I’ll complain about the heat. Such are the season cycles. Crazily I’m planning a trip to Florida in July with my grandkids, so I’ll need to prepare for heat, humidity, afternoon deluges and crowds. Unless you are a snowbird we are all prisoners of our climate. We would do well to just appreciate what we have and enjoy the playing opportunities the seasons allow. Optimism isn’t bad – although scheduling outdoor baseball tryouts in the last week of February in the Midwest seems unreasonable – so long as we are flexible. I’ve been to tournaments in March in Fort Wayne where we had to sweep off the lines constantly during the game, my kids played a game during a monsoon with puddles six inches deep at the goal mouths and in the center of the field, we traveled to a tournament in Las Vegas in July that was played on artificial turf so hot that the AR’s soles were melting, and I’ve spent many hours in my car waiting out lightning storms. That’s all part of the game. We are in an uneasy partnership with the weather, and we can’t get a divorce.

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Throwing the Game

Susan Boyd

While fun should be the overriding factor in any youth sport, moral dilemmas seem to sneak their way in. Take the case of two Tennessee girls’ high school basketball teams. Their game last week was meant to determine where they would be ranked for the Regional bracket. The loser of the game would ironically get the easier slot while the winner would have to face the regional powerhouse team. Therefore, with no subtlety whatsoever, Riverdale and Smyrna did whatever they could to throw the game. They purposely missed free throws, refused to cross the center line begging for a penalty, stood in the lane and even taunted the refs that they had violated the 3 second rule, refrained from throwing the ball inbounds within the allotted time, and even, finally, resorted to trying to score in the opponent’s basket. The referees had enough, reprimanded the coaches, and the two teams got more than they bargained for. Both were eliminated from postseason competition, put on probation for next year’s season, and fined $1,500 each. Incidentally, Smyrna eventually won showing they were more inept in losing on purpose.

I wrote about a soccer team AS Adema (ASA) defeating Stade Olympique L’Emyme (SOE) 149 – 0 without ever scoring a goal. SOE sent a ball into their own goal every 40 seconds for the entire 90 minutes in protest of a referee call in their previous game. Now that’s a team that knows how to lose! I can attest to my own children being part of a conspiracy to throw a game. If the team we were playing won with enough goals, it would eliminate a team we didn’t want to meet in the playoffs. We were assured of getting into the finals win or lose, so the coaches decided to create the best situation for us by losing the game and ensuring that our opponents scored at least three goals more than we did. I wasn’t aware of the duplicity but did note our team seemed off their game, not clearing the ball, making poor passes, and missing shots. As I bemoaned their lapses, a parent leaned over and whispered, “They’re doing it on purpose.” I was shocked. First, I never thought that losing could be a positive, but more importantly I never thought my child would be complicit in such a conspiracy. I wondered what went through his mind as the coach encouraged them to lose, but “lose skillfully.” Playing on the other side of the looking glass, was he confused, angry, happy, conflicted? He was 14 at the time, right on that cusp of being an adult but still having the insecurity of a child. Had he been convinced that this wasn’t cheating? Was he comfortable participating? Was he craving guidance he couldn’t get? I felt totally helpless as I watched the spectacle unfold in front of me.

The opponents won, our chief rivals were eliminated, and we went on to win the tournament, an outcome that might have happened without the duplicity. The results were overshadowed by my discomfort. There was no way I could cheer the victory because I couldn’t support the means which justified the ends. When I talked to Robbie, he was confused. As he put it, “I had to do what the coaches said,” which I think perfectly encapsulates the problem. How does a child question an authority figure he trusts to be his best advocate as a moral protector? Surprisingly, the parents were divided. While some were as disturbed as I was, there were those who felt all’s fair. They didn’t see the coaches’ plan as unethical, after all the guidelines didn’t forbid the throwing of a game and actually allowed for it. When we tried to make the argument about the integrity and spirit of the game, it fell on deaf ears. Those qualities didn’t seem to outweigh winning.

My concern was and is the message we are sending our children in scenarios like this. I really worry about asking kids to do something they have been taught is immoral – cheating – when those asking wield tremendous power. How can a child stand up to an authority figure in those circumstances? I’m concerned that the coaches took it upon themselves to throw the game without asking the parents.  That type of decision goes beyond the normal purview of any coach. It encroaches on a parent’s role in their children’s upbringing. A discussion of what the coaches wanted to do would have been preferable to a unilateral decision without my input. I hated that Robbie was left to deal with this quandary on his own without the ability to get some moral guidance and to understand my opinion on the circumstances. If the team decided it was the best choice, I might have gone along, but at least Robbie would have heard my voice and understood how I viewed the situation. He would have had a context for the decision and an anchor for discussion. Instead he had to flail under the coaching edicts, be loyal to his team, and go against what he had been taught throughout his life. Tough spot for a kid.

While many players might not face such a looming moral dilemma, small ones crop up all the time. A recreation team doctors registration materials to get better kids on the squad, an accusation leveled at and proven for the team that won the Little League World Series this year. Altering birth certificates to have older, more skilled kids on a team seems to be a common offense. Teaching and encouraging kids to “dive” constitutes an ethical quandary for everyone involved. Coaches who make criticism personal rather than constructive cross an ethical boundary. Rather than saying, “Your bad dribbling cost us the game” coaches should say, “Since our dribbling hurt us this game let’s concentrate on it next practice.” We get faced with ethical questions at nearly every game. Do we stand by as people, whether they be coaches, parents, players, or officials, use profane language? Should a player admit to a hand ball in the box? Would we be silent if a coach used an ineligible player because the officials didn’t know? How would we react to our team being encourage to play roughly? Where is the ethical line we draw on the pitch?

These not easy questions. There are pressures from all sides that determine our responses. Our child plays in a community of parents and friends. Taking a moral stand could jeopardize their position, not to mention ours. On the other hand, not stepping up sends a message of approval for behaviors which we, our teachers, our religious guides, and our civic leaders have been telling our children aren’t acceptable. I wonder how the parents of those basketball players felt. I wonder if any were conflicted about what was happening or if were they all in agreement. Clearly the athletic governing body thought their performance was not in the spirit of the competition. They cited the teams under the rule which states: “An unsporting foul is a noncontact technical foul which consists of unfair, unethical, dishonorable conduct or any other behavior not in accordance with the spirit of play.” What a wonderful, all-encompassing rule. Unfortunately, no one had read the rules prior to proceeding with their plan or they would have seen immediately how outside of the boundaries of ethical play they were travelling. I worry that those involved, especially the girls, will focus too much on the sanctions and not enough on their culpability in tarnishing the good name of youth sports. I hope the parents can see the wrong-headed-ness of the actions and use this as a significant teachable moment. Interestingly, the coaches argued that only they should receive punishment and that the girls should continue to compete in the playoffs without the coaches’ assistance. The athletic association refused, stating that the girls were old enough to understand the ethics of their actions.

I do agree with the association, but I also know how powerful the authority of a coach can be. If a coach tells a player to do something that is against her nature, it’s difficult to refuse when she has the coach, her teammates, and her school’s status to be considered. I don’t know if the strategy of the play was discussed in the locker room completely, if the coaches asked the girls’ opinions on doing what they did, if the teams colluded in any way, and if the parents were consulted beforehand. It’s difficult to know how any teenager might have reacted in those circumstances without support. If everyone was in agreement, how could one or two stand against them? As we run up against these dilemmas, all we can do is deal with each one separately. In my case, I asked Robbie what he thought about the decision his coaches made. He expressed how uncomfortable he was and how uncomfortable his teammates were, but that they all felt powerless to refuse to go along. I wish they could have contacted us parents somehow in order to get perspective and support. I felt badly that he was left to wage his inner battle alone. On the other hand, I know that it gave him strength in later battles, including facing up to a racist coach. So every dilemma may not be resolved on the right side of the line, but it can give us the ability to push for the right next time.

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Nickel and Dime

Susan Boyd

Don’t kid yourself. When you bring your sweet 6-year-old into the soccer store to get her first kit, you’re starting down a long road of financial obligation. Sure, that uniform bundle with its tiny, cute black cleats, mini shin guards, and crisp jersey and shorts only costs $30. The store may even throw in a ball. You and your child are hooked. Like the wicked queen offering Snow White the apple, the sales clerk practically cackles. He knows you’ll be back, and next time won’t be such a bargain. This is the tale for all youth activities. If your son gets good at the trumpet, that used instrument you rent monthly won’t do any longer. Piggy-back that expense with the private lessons beyond what he learns in school band.  Actors, artists, musicians, athletes and scholars manage to drain the wallet as they grow, improve, and narrow their passions. Soccer is no exception. Sure, one reason soccer is so popular world-wide is because it really only requires something round to kick. But as players grow, improve and focus, they can’t develop with a cantaloupe. They need money.

The uniform is just the beginning. Kids outgrow cleats quickly, and the bigger their feet, the higher the cost. Those tiny size 3 cleats may come in a package deal, but eventually kids morph into the “real” cleats with real price tags. Junior cleats can be under $100, but all too soon they become $150 to $250. Trust me, your children won’t want the utilitarian cleats, they want the ones Messi wears or the electric orange ones or the super lightweight ones, which ironically use the least materials and cost the most. Instead of a single jersey and pair of shorts, kids will need a home and an away jersey, warm-ups, a bag, and Nike Hyperwarm gear for those cold days. It won’t stop at what they need; it piles on with what they want. They’ll want their idol’s uniform, and while you’ll try to steer them to the practice jersey, they’ll want the game shirt at double the cost. Balls can be inexpensive, but I guarantee that eventually you’ll need to spring for the pricier version even the budget-busting commemorative ones.  

Kids will play on recreation teams for a minimal cost as they start out. Those are the salad days, when the check you write doesn’t equal the mortgage payment. Enjoy it while it lasts. Later, when making the decision to move up to a select club, you want to verify that your player is ready for that commitment and that you are willing to foot the financial obligation. While not really bait and switch, you need to keep in mind that whatever fees the club charges for being on a team are just a starting point of expenses. Even if you and your family don’t travel with the player to tournaments and away games, there will still be substantial costs for those events. Beyond transportation costs there will be lodging, meals, and support such as sports drinks and snacks. You’ll need to multiply these costs by the number of family members who attend. You might think it’s silly to mention, but we spent quite a bit on tournament T-shirts, programs, photos, and DVDs – a hidden cost that adds up over the years. Since these costs can be prohibitive for some families, it’s a good idea to buddy up with other families to share the expenses. Players sharing a room and transportation can really help out. Some clubs will rent a bus for tournaments in driving range. That can significantly reduce expenses.  

Many parents, in the hopes of their child getting a college athletic scholarship, will pay for private lessons and fitness training. It can get really pricey, really fast. Playing soccer at a college level is an honor, which I think is worthy of striving towards. But if parents think that a scholarship is going to cover all the costs, they are mistaken. Even the best players rarely get a full ride. If an out-of-state student plays at a state-funded university, he will pay the out-of-state tuition. Players who attend a private school may end up with a bigger bill than if they paid full tuition at one of their own state schools. If you took all the money you spent on soccer over the years, invested it in a conservative college fund, you’d probably have more money for your child’s education than any athletic scholarship they might earn. Therefore, before writing lots of checks, be sure you’re doing it for the right reasons: your child loves soccer and loves playing at a top level. Everything else will just be icing on the cake. Don’t go into debt if you can help it, and definitely don’t short-change other kids in order to support one.

Beware of the camps, which many colleges and universities offer with the promise that your child will be scouted by their coaches. Any player who contacted a college coach or plays on a high school team or plays on a competitive select team will receive the email invitations. These are phrased by the same people who tell you you’ve won a Caribbean cruise. When you read them, you believe you’re one of a very select group. Remember that these camps are huge money-makers for the schools and area coaches. Yes, the player will be seen by a variety of coaches, but these camps may not be the most efficient and powerful way to get noticed. They are certainly not the most cost-effective unless the camp is run by a number of institutions, rather than just one. They run around $300-$800 not counting transportation to and from. If your child is looking at just five (although most look at around 10) programs, you’re looking at a first year’s tuition just to attend camps – probably not the wisest use of your money. Schools will also imply that if your player doesn’t attend the camp, he or she will not be considered by the program. Hogwash! No recruitment program is going to pass on a great player just because she didn’t attend their summer camp. I’m not suggesting players shouldn’t attend a camp or two, but be smart. Consider camps at institutions your child has a chance of entering. Stanford and Notre Dame may not be realistic if grades and test scores aren’t sterling. Top 20 programs probably won’t consider a player who isn’t already being heavily recruited. On the other hand, some schools will join forces, so for the same amount of money as an individual camp a player can be seen by up to 10 schools. Another category of camps are those run by famous coaches who promise to improve a player’s skill and fitness. Check the reputation of these programs before submitting your credit card. Some are better than others, and since these can be the most expensive because they focus on training, you want to be sure they address the strengths and weaknesses of your child. Finally, there are the overseas opportunities. Players won’t necessarily be scouted or trained, but they will get a much broader view of soccer and how it is played outside of America. There are some significant benefits to these camps, which have little to do with getting a scholarship or improving skills. Getting an expanded world view in this increasingly global economic, political and social atmosphere can be invaluable for students. Plus, having the experience of playing with and against teams outside of the U.S. does look good on the resume. 

I’ve stored away each son’s first kit. They will be a good reminder of where the passion began. They are also a good reminder of where all our retirement savings went. Bronzing the shoes would be a small investment compared to the tens of thousands we spent over the years. However, I don’t regret a dime of those expenditures. We shared some amazing adventures as a family, our sons had the opportunity to commit to and succeed at their passion, and we all had a full lives. Soccer is a language we can speak even when we might be uncomfortable with other discussions, and it will always be an enthusiasm we shared. Each family needs to decide how much they are willing to do financially. No one needs to feel guilty should they have to say no to any opportunity because of financial reasons. There is plenty of soccer available that can be played and enjoyed for less money. Our sons played on their college teams with players who had far more training and scouting than they had and those who had far less. Good soccer players will be noticed even if they are wearing used cleats and last year’s jersey.

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“Winning Excuses Everything” – Cam Newton

Susan Boyd

“Deflate Gate” is just one scandal in a long series of alleged or actual attempts to cheat in order to secure a win. We can go back to the 1919 World Series where a group of Chicago White Sox players agreed to throw games in order for high rollers to win big on their bets. In 1980, Rosie Ruiz supposedly won the Boston Marathon with a time 20 minutes faster than any of her other previous races. Her win, however, was assisted by the Boston subway, which she rode to the finish line and then rejoined the race. Even I could win a marathon using that ploy. Lance Armstrong eventually admitted to doping during his unprecedented seven Tour de France wins. He claims doping was done by all, and he had to do it to stay competitive. Just before the 1994 U.S. figure skating competition, Tonya Harding tried to remove her main challenger, Nancy Kerrigan, by having her whacked on the knee with a metal baton at the end of a practice session. Despite being unable to compete in the championship, which Harding won, Kerrigan was voted onto the Olympic team, going on to win silver while Harding only placed eighth. On a far more serious scale than deflating balls, the New Orleans Saints were accused in 2012 to have run a bounty program paying players who seriously injured their opponents. While never definitively proven, the defensive coordinator admitted there was a pool of money to reward players for “good hits.” Four players received suspensions, which were all appealed and eventually reduced or vacated. 

This win-at-any-cost attitude isn’t admirable or acceptable, but it also isn’t surprising given the amount of money winning provides in professional or high level amateur sports. It’s not just about getting the X in the win column, or the trophy, or the medal. It’s about getting a huge payout in endorsements, signing bonuses, licensing and increased fan base. Athletes with careers that rarely go into their 40s look for payouts that are inflated by winning. A deflated ball, a bribe, a hard hit, or performance-enhancing drugs can mean the difference between being winners who get noticed and everyone else. No wonder Cam Newton believes winning excuses everything. If athletes feel morally bankrupt, they can rationalize like Lance Armstrong. This attitude that “everybody’s doing it” to justify some form of deceit or manipulation absolutely gets noticed by youth players. They are already in the frame of mind to follow the herd (Mom, everybody wears crop tops to school) and to succeed because we live in a world where anything other than a win is considered failure. So these ideas percolate down to youth sports. Add to the mix adults who buy into the theory that their kids, team, and/or school has to win, and the pressure to cheat becomes unavoidable. We’ve all experienced coaches who scream at kids they feel are costing the team a win or argue with referees over the most inconsequential matters because it’s not enough to win the game; they also have to win the arguments.

How do we avoid the pitfalls of winning that excuses everything? The first step would be to resist the urge to overpraise our kids for every little outcome. If they believe that Mom and Dad only seriously value success, they’ll do anything to make that happen. Heidi Stevens, in her article, “In Criticism of Praise,” for the January issue of Southwest: The Magazine, gives some excellent guidelines for not overdoing the approval of our kids’ activities. For example, if your child scores the game-winning goal there’s no need to be overly effusive. There will be several dozen more games to follow that accomplishment, and she probably won’t score the game winner every time or even ever again. So she could end up considering her good team play as failure because she didn’t equal that moment of glory. Simply saying, “Way to go.  All that practice paid off,” lets her know you recognize the result of good effort, but that honest effort is the primary factor not the outcome. Instead of effusing over a child’s story he wrote for class, engage him in a discussion of what he wrote – tell me how you decided to make the bear your main character. Later you might praise his body of work by noting improvement or how he maintains an interesting voice in all his writing. Put the focus on process rather than on product. Ultimately expressing love is far more important than praise.

Next we should refuse to tolerate boorish behavior in the name of winning. Youth sports clubs should focus on fun, but in reality clubs face the same issues of money on a smaller scale as professional franchises do. A club that can attract players who win matches and championships have excellent PR for recruiting even more participants. The more kids in a club, the more fees, and the more coaches get jobs. Therefore, the pressure to succeed is tremendous. It’s understandable to have winning as the objective. As the old saying goes, “If winning doesn’t matter, then why do we keep score?” The difference is how the adults approach the challenge. There should be no belittling of players during or after a game. Parents on the sideline need to refrain from yelling, criticizing and coaching. Kids can’t operate under that kind of pressure. Teenagers especially react strongly to harsh instruction. Fun and winning aren’t mutually exclusive activities despite what many adults believe. It’s up to us to speak to the problems calmly but firmly. Often coaches and parents don’t even realize how ugly their behavior has become. Once our team and families were watching a DVD of a championship game, and it was cringe-worthy as parents heard how they sounded and coaches saw how they behaved. It led to a good discussion about how we could all step up and be better examples. Don’t be afraid to speak up when things get out of hand.

Addressing dirty play as a way to secure a win can be (excuse the pun) difficult to tackle. At a U-10 match during a tournament, the coach and several parents of the opposing team were encouraging their players to take our players out. “Hit his ankles. Get his knees. Take him down.” Play got very chippy and the poor 13-year-old referee couldn’t control it. No one on our team, myself included, spoke to the opposing coach after the game or the tournament director, and I regret that decision because we tacitly provided approval for such bad manners. With our own player and team we need to be vigilant for instances when kids get too violent. Good coaches will pull these kids from the pitch and let them calm down before instructing them on good sportsmanship. As parents, we need to let our kids know that we won’t tolerate dirty play. We told our sons that if they got a yellow card for dissent or a foul, we wouldn’t be happy, but we would understand that’s part of the game. However, if they got any card, especially a red, for vicious play, they would be sitting out a few games. We only had to institute the punishment once, so I think forewarning helped them think before they acted. If your child’s coach encourages dirty play, then you need to consider if that’s the environment you want for your player. Chances are you can’t change that, but it wouldn’t hurt to try. You may just need to find another coach/club.

Finally, we should redefine success in all endeavors. The sports duality model of a winner and a loser spills over into so many of our kids’ activities. Earning an A is seen as a win and anything else is seen as a loss. Being first chair in the orchestra is success and all other positions are failure. Getting an art project chosen to be displayed is a victory and being left out of the exhibit is a defeat. Therefore, kids will do just about anything to be the winner since that role is so narrow and specific. We need to help our kids move from that binary approach to success and discover what true winning can be. Over-celebrating the big success diminishes the smaller successes that don’t fit into the “first-place finish” category. In fact, those big shows of approval only lend credence to the theory that winner take all is the only thing that matters. According to a recent study by the Ad Council, 75 percent of students admit to cheating in order to get A’s (not just better grades). Obviously, students have lots of pressures to compete because they are trying to get into the best colleges. However, as a college instructor, I have seen students who are working on the thin edge of their abilities and achieve success through cheating often end up failing at the university. At a high school freshmen parents’ meeting for my youngest daughter, the big question was how we get our kids into Ivy League schools. When I asked how many of the parents had attended an Ivy League school, not a single hand went up. Instead of seeing entering college as a win, they only saw entering the top colleges in America as a win. This pressure to accomplish some inflated definition of winning leads to a lack of integrity in the effort because there’s no way to get there honestly. We need to start redefining success and then applauding that success. 

Confident people have a more realistic view of what constitutes a win and can actually achieve more under that view. Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychology professor, conducted a study that was reported in Steven’s article. In the study, Dweck presented young students with problems that were far beyond their ability to resolve, but she wanted to see how they reacted to the challenge. Some kids dissolved into tantrums and tears seeing their inability to solve the problems as failure. Some coped with the situation accepting that they couldn’t find a solution. However, surprising to Dweck was a group of kids who loved the challenge, happy to struggle with the situation and unfazed when they couldn’t find an answer. As she put it, “they acted like it was a gift.” These kids had learned not to see the world as win and lose, but as a spectrum of situations that had to be met and attempted. They had a spirit of adventure looking at the journey more than at the destination. In a follow up study she gave a group of fifth graders an IQ test. Along with their scores she offered two different praises. To one group she said “You must be smart at this,” and to another group she said “You must have tried really hard.” Then she offered the kids a chance to take another test but they could choose whether to take an easier test than they had just finished or a harder test. The majority of the kids told they were smart opted for the easier test and those praised for effort primarily selected the harder test. The “smart” group didn’t want to risk their status of being smart by challenging themselves with a tougher test they might “fail.”  The “effort” group had the freedom to push themselves because they could then further the level of their effort in the eyes of the scorer. Winning was seen as working harder, not in getting a higher score.

As a writing teacher I’ve come across my share of plagiarism. For some students the cheating stems from laziness – they procrastinate in the assignment or just don’t want to do it. But for the majority of students who cheat, it’s because they recognize a weakness in their writing and don’t want to be judged on that level. It pains me when a student plagiarizes, not because I’m incensed by cheating, but because I know the writer is suffering from feelings of failure. So I use the situation as a teachable moment. I ask the student to rewrite the plagiarized passages in their own words while in my office where we can discuss how to translate the ideas of others into their own opinions. I’ve always said I don’t teach writing; I teach thinking. I want students to be as proud of a C as they are of an A if that C was earned through honest, hard effort. And I want a student to know that improvement is possible through effort.  I don’t agree with Cam Newton that winning excuses everything because winning should be a spectrum of success that builds on previous successes earned with integrity. We can’t all be winners in the model of win/loss, but we can all be winners in the model of process and improvement. I prefer the latter definition.

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