Monday, May 04, 2009
Winning isn't everything which is easy to say, but not easy to live by unless you're under the age of ten. Measuring one's accomplishments by a team's success doesn't really set in until kids are older. As youngsters they are enough "me" focused with a touch of self-doubt to need personal praise and affirmation. They can understand and appreciate a team win, but it isn't the most important part of playing. I was watching a soccer game of six year olds when one team scored on the other. As the kids lined up for the kickoff, a parent shouted encouragingly, "You'll get it bac" prompting a player to pipe up, "We already got it back. We're kicking." Duh mom and dad! Someday hearing, "you'll get it back" will be very important and supportive. That day, it just stated the obvious.
My grandkids like to win as much as the next player especially if they are playing a board game against one another. But whenever I talk to them about their sports I never hear if they won or lost. Instead, I am treated to a blow by blow description of some snippet from their match where they felt they had achieved something extraordinary. Their personal victory over whatever roadblocks existed during play carry far more weight in their memories than wins or losses. Last week Archer announced on the phone that he had done "the biggest kick ever. It went past all the players. It almost went out of the field, but it didn't." I have no idea if the kick resulted in a goal. What mattered was the power of his kick. I expressed supreme praise for having such a strong leg. And when I asked if the team had won he replied, "I love you. Bye."
Don't get me wrong . . . I'm all for winning. Competition leads to life lessons as important as courtesy and safety. What I dread are the by-products of competition that spell the end of innocence. Kids who played together for three years suddenly find themselves split into separate teams based on skill. For those who don't make the "A" team there's the natural feelings of failure and the pain of seeing a group of your friends move on without you. Parents can put whatever spin on the results as they want, but kids still understand what's happening. Clubs need to be encouraged to help players through these transitions. I've witnessed and heard of horrible stories when children first enter the world of select soccer. At age nine all of Robbie's team except two players were invited to play up a year. We were told we were moving as a team, so it was shock to learn that two kids were "disinvited." All of us felt betrayed. I still remember the anguish in the voice of one mother. It was totally unnecessary. Eventually those players would have self-selected to opt out of soccer and winning didn't really matter at that age. Parents and coaches need to be sensitive to the major upheaval this transition imposes on families. It's not just missing out on a particular team. It can change the social group for children and define them among their peers.
We should appreciate and extend the years when winning takes a back seat to personal achievement. The kids don't have that judgmental attitude towards one another. Every action earns high fives, whether a goal or an own goal. The players have that wonderful raw enthusiasm where nothing can go wrong, except occasional bumps and bruises. Games are a jumble of activity punctuated with outbursts of glee. Somewhere in the midst of this joyous chaos a few gems of learning are picked up. I know that eventually the entire rhythm of the games will shift to winning. The players will express disappointment in one another's efforts and learn to lay blame. I'm not sure how or why this shift occurs, but it does. Some of it may be learned on the ride home from games where we parents point out that Johnny didn't pass very well or Mary is a ball hog. And some of it just grows from the competitive need to win where one mistake can spell the difference between winning and losing.
I often miss the pleasure of just laughing on the sidelines. Once winning becomes important that drive spills over to the spectators. A 16 year old going to kick the ball and whiffing evokes disappointing grunts while a six year old doing the same thing elicits giggles. Own goals aren't funny when they occur in state league play, but are hilarious in recreational soccer especially when followed by leaps of joy from the striker and her teammates, who only understand that a goal is a good thing. When winning gets involved, watching a game can become an exercise in self-control rather than unbridled engagement. I know too well the tension that winning brings to a competition. During last fall's state tournament quarterfinals Robbie's high school team fought to a 0-0 tie in regulation finally scoring a golden goal in overtime. All the restrained tension spilled out in body shakes and tears. That would never happen while watching Archer kick the biggest kick ever. So I'm grateful for those years of just enjoying the moment without any stake in the outcome. And when they look back, the kids will be grateful too.