Monday, April 06, 2009
The other night I was watching the program "How I Met Your Mother." I admit this even though it may decrease my credibility in some people's eyes. But I find the show a pleasant diversion for Mondays. In this particular episode one story line concerns Marshall, who is married to Lily, a kindergarten teacher. He agrees to coach her class basketball team. Marshall has an amiable even child-like demeanor, and Lily is just plain sweet.
So when the scene opens in the gym with Marshall and his pint-size players, our expectation is a bucolic moment. Lily enters with a large container of orange slices and Marshall turns to his team warmly asking "Hey kids, who wants to knock off early and have some of these orange slices?" The team erupts in cheers, leaping up and down. But the crescendo quickly fades as Marshall evolves into a growling, screaming creature. "Well you can't. Because oranges are for winners and you little runts haven't made a single shot yet. You're embarrassing yourselves. You're embarrassing Miss Aldrin. And worst of all you're embarrassing me. That's it. Suicides. Baseline. Now run." Lily stands horrified as he throws the basketball at a kid and shouts, "That's not running. That's falling."
So the next day, she pleads with Marshall not to pick on the kids. "Lily, I'm not picking on the kids. I'm picking on the culture of losing around here. I'm going to win that game tomorrow." Lily laughs. "Win? We don't keep score." Like a boxer rising from the mat on the eight count, Marshall reels, "What!? You don't keep score. What's the point of playing if you don't keep score? If you don't know who's winning then who gets the trophy?" She coos, "Everyone. It's a participation trophy. Everyone gets one." With utter confusion Marshall looks at the love of his life, "It's like you're speaking Chinese to me right now."
The writer, Joe Kelly, has to have young children. He wrote scenes that perfectly convey those rite of passage moments in youth sports. The show is funny because it's true. We have either known or observed the coach who thinks the players under his or her guidance should be handled like Dennis Rodman on his most petulant days. Hopefully none of us have been that coach, but I think the tendency exists in all of us. We're a nation that exalts a "winning" mentality. We have award shows for just about anything you can name, and for what's left over we have the "People's Choice" awards. We don't know what to do with situations where scores aren't kept and everyone gets an award.
The episode continues with a flashback to Marshall being taught by his father, who was evidently the model for his coaching style. Lily realizes that unless she steps in, Marshall will continue the pattern with their children. So she orders him to be a
"Teddy Bear stuffed with cotton candy and rainbows" when he's on the sidelines. At the big game, he can barely choke out to the kids "go out and have fun". He gags on his encouragement. "Yay, way to let them score that easily." As a player kicks the ball, he instinctively reacts, "Billy you don't kick the ball. This isn't soccer." Then he catches himself, "Unless kicking the ball is something you find fun, then you should do it." As the team struggles into half time Marshall has an apoplectic moment trying hard not to tell the team that "the score is 51 to nothing. But it doesn't matter because you are having fun."
Marshall does convince Lily to let him try it his way, which ends up being no more or less effective than the Mr. Nice Guy routine. At the game's conclusion, Marshall begrudgingly acknowledges that Lily's way isn't completely terrible. Lily will have none of it. "Your way stinks!" This is the real moral of the tale. These are kids who have limited attention spans and haven't yet developed a cut-throat attitude towards life. So coaching won't brow beat them into winners, but coaches can contribute to their growth as happy and confident human beings.
When I went to my grandson's soccer game where parents were urged to be part of the "circle of positive thoughts," I admit I rolled my eyes. This touchy feely approach was so far removed from what Bryce and Robbie were experiencing in their team practices and games. I assumed that people couldn't help themselves. I absolutely expected that everyone would know the score of the game at the end despite the "we don't keep score" policy. But it was truly a joyful, exhilarating experience for both parents and kids. Everyone had fun, and as much as I pride myself on my compulsive tendencies, I had no idea what the score was at the end. Every kid left that field with a smile, even the kid who got stepped on by his own teammate rushing the goal. The adults made a tunnel for the kids to run through, something I had always regarded as corny. But after the tenth trip through for each kid whooping it up and feeling very good about his contribution, I had to admit that things are only corny if you can't see the good in them.
Years ago our sons had a coach who wouldn't have known positive if he was hooked up to a battery. We parents put up with his antics and his swearing and his put downs because, well frankly, I think we were all a bit terrified. We knew we wanted our kids to stay in this particular successful club. So despite our better judgment and despite the slumped shoulders and bowed heads after every game, win or lose, we stuck it out. Flash forward to last summer as I walked to a field to watch Bryce's new club team play. An under 12 game was just finishing up. As I approached the field I heard a coach bellowing "You guys are losers. You can't play soccer. Move your rear end (I cleaned that up). You call that passing. You stink at passing." Sure enough, when I got close enough I realized it was this coach from years before still using his bullying techniques. There was nothing in his rhetoric that taught those boys how to be better soccer players, but there was plenty that taught them they were worthless. Now that he no longer had any power over my boys' future in soccer, I wasn't filtering what he was saying with my own rationalizations. I was pretty uncomfortable realizing that for my own sake of wanting to create winners in our family, I had subjected my children to this ugly, non-productive ranting. They weren't motivated to be winners; they won despite his tirades.
I'd love to sit down with Joe Kelly and talk about his experiences with coaches. I did look him up on Internet Movie Data Base because I had to know how many kids he had and their ages. But unfortunately I only learned that his nickname was Meathouse. If you read this blog, Joe, write to me. I thought your script really nailed it when it comes to the world of youth sports and coaching. It was funny because it was true. I hope a lot of parents and coaches saw the show and shared a good laugh as they realized the wisdom of it all.