Our oldest daughter is ten and she’s been playing soccer for five years. We’ve tried turning her on to other sports, but she keeps coming back to soccer, so we support her in it. She’s played on a lot of teams over the years, from five-year-old kids who ran up and down the field in a big clump around the ball, to a group last year that went on to earn championships in both of their season-ending tournaments.
I never played soccer growing up. Soccer was for Communist children the way tennis and golf was for rich children. We played baseball, football and basketball. And we played year-round. We also walked to practices carrying our gear and the cost of playing didn’t cost our parents thousands. We learned to play hard, well and fair. Some of the kids I participated with even went on to play at the college level. One went on to the pros. The sportsmanship I learned playing youth sports was critical to my personal development as a contributing member of society. And the memories of camaraderie from that time are still dear to me.
This year my daughter’s soccer team is good, but not great. As a group of girls that didn’t even know each other before August, it’s been interesting to watch them grow as a team while becoming more confident with every match. Their fall regular season ended this weekend, and I’m hopeful they’ll grow even more in the spring. But overall, they’re a good bunch of kids with a solid coach and they all seem to have a good time out there. Winning isn’t necessarily the most important thing.
Not to our kids, anyway.
But winning is the most important thing to some. Three weeks ago, we travelled to a town just north of Charlotte to play a team that was rated number one in our division. According to their statistics, they’d steamrolled every team they played. And after getting dominated by them in our game, I understood why. These girls were big. But that’s not why they win. These girls have played together for a few years. But that’s not why they win either. These girls are incredibly talented. But still, that’s not why they win. They win because they play dirty. During our match with them, they set a tone at the outset that they weren’t going to allow our girls to touch a ball without being touched themselves. Hard. They used hands, elbows and at one point as my daughter broke a defensive line and was on the verge of shooting – a girl on the opposing team drove her to the ground with a shoulder. Like a linebacker. The coaches (female) of the opposing team cheered the effort by their player, while my daughter had to be helped off of the field. We thought she’d broken her wrist trying to break her fall. It took a lot for me not to rush the coaches after that. Physical is one thing. We don’t mind physical. Sports are physical. We’re ok with physical. Dirty, however, is something else entirely. Besides – these are ten year old children.
So why is this happening? How can parents stand by and let their children be taught this way? I blame ego. No child is born with the intrinsic need to play dirty, or to win at any cost. These are coached traits. A coach that can field a team of thugs and win, has a better record. A better record means higher rankings. Higher rankings look good on resumes. Likewise with the parents – if their child plays on a winning team, they can take that up to the next level in appeals to those coaches. So what if these kids are only ten years old. Screw them. Besides, it’s best to teach them the reality of sport early on, right? Sadly, the team that mauled our kids that night didn’t need to play the way they did. They were good enough not to.
Thankfully, our daughter is tough. She even returned to the game she was removed from, and played even harder afterward. But the image of her being driven to the ground by an opposing player who then looked over at her coaches for validation – and received it – stayed with me for a week. I sent a strongly-worded email to our coach who agreed about the game and the coaching tactics of the opposing team. As a result, our league has filed an official grievance at the state level against the team of thugs. There’s no reason why the safety of children needs to be questioned during a U-11 soccer match.
I still hold out hope that there’s a place in the world for fairness. But when we condone, nay, endorse teaching our children the opposite, my hope is thin.
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Nov 7, 2011
Those girls are only playing the way the coach wants them to play. There is a fine line between starting and “riding the pine” in sports at the junior level for some programs. Fear is a great motivator and if some of these girls have it in their mind that they will not be starting because of lack of “effort” then they are going to play on another level. It’s unfortunate that these girls who presumably are skilled to begin with, rely on thuggery to wear down the will of their opponents. Fair play isn’t in their vocabulary, only winning – as you so aptly put it. These girls were coached in “Gamesmanship” or the style of play on the professional level, where dirty is good as long as you can get away with it and the field judge or referee doesn’t see the cheap shots. Usually the home team has the advantage, with the refs not wanting the home crowd whipped into a frenzy (I’m sure some of these guys don’t want to be mugged in the parking lot by irate parents and boosters) by “Seeing” a bad call against them.
Just the fact that they took a shot at your daughter means she was a potential threat, someone who might actually make a good play against them and ruin the reputation and sanctity of their home field. These thugs put a hit on your daughter because she’s good. Poise and athleticism stand out with her so with her out of the way the other team could easily pick apart the weaker spots on the field.
I’m pretty sure most rational people would agree that the game should be played within the rules and realize that this should be “Kids having fun”, but in the real world – there are greedy self serving pockets of society with an agenda that screams of “only the strong will survive”. Athletic scholarships are hard to come by, and if you survive the game and stay out on top – the reward is there. You have to realize that on the field it’s really the only place where bullying is accepted, the stronger team is going to win. That’s what those thugs have been taught.
I don’t condone that style of play or the thinking behind it. Competition should be a display of skill and fairness and not about who can get the most cheap shots when the game is on the line.
Kids who play fair and have solid foundations and a love for the game survive the battles. They will remember the cheap shots and find ways to rise above that style of play and the philosophy behind it.
Nov 7, 2011
I like many have followed the soccer career of your daughter through your words. I have said this before, we feel like we know her. We root her on, we share in her triumphs and not the greatest of outings. Why? Because she is a young lady that is playing so hard and there is a piece of us that she takes with us on the field with each game.
I have coached coed soccer for children. They were 5/6. Silly men thought that the parents wanted their children to learn every position and the fundamentals of the game. NOPE! They wanted to win. They wanted the 2 big kids up front with theirs next to them of course so that they could over power and win each game. It did not matter if some of the kids on the other teams were smaller, less talented. Nope. It did not matter that each child was to get the same amount of playing time. Nope. Winning mattered. As a coach, it was my obligation and responsibility to teach them the rules and fundamentals of the game. They lost 2 games and tied 1 and won the rest. I was yelled at by parents, spoken about in manner on the sidelines that was so unbecoming of adults that I laughed it off. I reached my goal as each child knew what it was like to play forward, center, defense and goalie. Each knew how it felt when a goal went past them, each felt that thrill of being up near the net trying to score a goal. The children appreciated it, the parents, no.
In moving to NJ, football is it. You know. My son was not even in NJ for 24 hours when he took to the field for a grueling 2 hour practice (which for 3 weeks was every night). He is 6. the 5/6/7 play flags. They are there to learn the game, the positions and sportsmanship. There were 2 teams A&B. My son got selected for A. Team A won every game except 1 where they tied. Team B lost every single game. Team A had at least 7 that sat on the bench except for the mandatory 7 plays. Team B never sat. Team A in the league was feared. Team B was laughed at. Team B was at a game where a coach from the other team was cursing (yes I said cursing) at their players on the field. Imagine being a grown man cursing at a 5/6/7 year old. Imagine being the parent of a child on Team B knowing that your child was exposed to this unsportsmanlike conduct in a flag football game? What does it teach? There is not room for error and praise comes with superiority and excellence. What did your daughter and her teammates learn? Domination comes in all forms but skill comes with practice, heart and sometimes a born gift. What did the other team learn this year? Domination only comes from winning no matter what, domination comes in acceptance from the coach when they overpower with physical play and not skill.
And that my friend is my novel of the day!
Nov 9, 2011
Don’t let up.
I coached a lot of youth baseball while raising three sons,
and have witnesses hundreds of coaches and parents
at various levels of involvement with teams, in dozens of towns.
Baseball isn’t physical like soccer.
But examples of ill-driven adults instilling an imbalanced, warped
spirit of “competitiveness”, is found between these lines too.
Years ago, my middle son was the startibg pitching in a regional all star tournament.
He’s a quiet kid who looked terrified when handed the ball to start the game.
We were playing a big city team, and they looked the part.
Somehow, he struck out their first nine batters, and got a hit in each of the first 2 innings.
Then it got ugly. He got up to bat, and their coach gave their pitcher a signal I didn’t like.
Birth certificates are required for each player to register in these statewide tourneys, but this pitcher raised everyone’s suspicion; he look 15, not 11 or 12.
The pitcher grinned back at the coach like he was pitching for Kobra Kai.
I called time from the 3rd base coaches box, walked to the plate, and told my boy
To watch out for a headhunter – and I made sure the ump heard me.
Sure enough, coach asshole had given the ugliest in all of youth sports;
Hit the batter. But he had also signaled the catcher to call high inside.
Do you get that? Picture a kid the size of a high school sophomore throwing
a 70 mph fastball at a tiny 11 year old 6th grader, aiming for his face.
Lovely clueless moms and dads ringed the park
(there were 18 teams at the 3-field complex).
Some of the opposing team’s dad’s knew. And approved.
He threw a heater at the batter’s temple.
The ump gives him a warning.
Their coach doesn’t call it off.
He gives him an angry look for missing.
If you see an adult training (this isn’t teaching-it’s training)
any youth athlete to play dirty, especially to win by
Injuring another kid, go to the police.
Take video, speak up, confront sanely, or you’re complicit.
The next one made him drop to save his face again.
The ump finally threw him out, and banned their coach.
But if I hadn’t seen it coming, my 11 year old
Could have been Tony Conigliaro.
I told the criminal coach, and the cowardly assistants
“Some day my boy will be the firefighter or Marine or surgeon who saves your son’s life”.
Do not conform.