Playing to win (or not) in youth sports, and the fate of Western Civilization
Part of my reason for having this blog is to wave my own lonely flag for a Rally to Restore Youth Sports Sanity, to provide a thoughtful, reasoned, fucking profanity-filled discourse on the middle ground between youth sports as everybody-gets-a-trophy-and-a-hug, and youth sports as win-at-all-costs-or-we-don’t-l0ve-you-anymore. Perhaps it is with that in mind that Eric McErlain at the great hockey blog Off Wing Opinion sent me a link to a piece from Pajamas Media about a father who took over for a day from a coach who was of the everybody-gets-a-trophy school, and decided to have his soccer team of 11-year-olds play to win.
If you aren’t familiar with Pajamas Media, it’s a site that traffics mainly in commentary and opinion of the conservative and libertarian bent, so it’s no surprise that the piece’s author, Barry Rubin, would have a problem with a style of coaching that emphasized “fun” over “kicking the other team’s ass.” Nor that Rubin, founder of an international affairs research center based in Israel, would see the decision to value “fun” over “ass-kicking” in youth sports as a metaphor for the future of world affairs.
Here is how his piece starts:
It’s something of a stretch to compare a soccer game among eleven-year-old boys with the fate of the democratic world, but I’ve always managed to see big issues in small things.
My son is playing on a local soccer team which has lost every one of its games, often by humiliating scores. The coach is a nice guy, but seems an archetype of contemporary thinking: he tells the kids not to care about whether they win, puts players at any positions they want, and doesn’t listen to their suggestions.
He never criticizes a player or suggests how a player could do better. My son, bless him, once remarked to me: “How are you going to play better if nobody tells you what you’re doing wrong?” The coach just tells them how well they are playing. Even after an 8-0 defeat, he told them they’d played a great game.
And of course, the league gives trophies to everyone, whether their team finishes in first or last place.
I’d even seen an American television documentary about boys and sports which justified this approach, explaining that coaches were doing something terrible by deriding failure, urging competitiveness, and demanding victory. So were the kids really happier to be “relieved” of the strain of trying to win, “liberated” from feeling bad at the inequality of athletic talent?
Or am I right in thinking that sports should prepare children for life, competition, the desire to win, and an understanding that not every individual has the same level of skills? A central element in that world is rewarding those who do better, which also offers an incentive for them and others to strive, rather than thinking they merely need choose between becoming a government bureaucrat or dependent.
So Rubin takes over for the coach one day, plays to win and — spoiler alert — he IS right!
They took a 1-0 lead and held it, in contrast to the previous week when it was scoreless at the half but turned into a 3-0 humiliation when someone ill-suited was made goalkeeper just because he wanted that job.
When kids with fewer skills didn’t want to play defense, I pointed out that these were critical positions, since winning required preventing the other team from scoring. At the end, they performed heroically, holding off repeated attacks on their goal.
I worried that the boys who played less of the game and were given seemingly less significant positions would be resentful. But quite the opposite proved true.
With the team ahead, they were thrilled. One shouted from the sidelines something I thought showed real character: “Don’t let the good players do all the work!” Instinctively, he recognized that some players are better, but he wanted to bring everyone’s level up rather than down. I’m tempted to say he was going against what he was being taught in school.
They played harder, with a bit more pressure and a less equal share of personal glory than they’d ever done before. But after the victory, they were glowing and appreciative, amazed that they had actually won a game. Yes, winning and being allowed to give their best effort as a team was far more exciting and rewarding for them than being told they had done wonderfully by just showing up, that everyone should be treated equal as if there were no difference in talents, and that the results didn’t matter.
And that brings us back to why youth soccer can portend the domination (or decline) of Western Civilization.
Next week, of course, they will be back to losing. But I think that perhaps they learned something useful to counter the indoctrination they are getting in school. If you don’t care about winning, you’re merely handing triumph to the other side. In a soccer league that might not matter, yet in personal life, your level of achievement and satisfaction is going to depend on giving your best effort. If a country is indifferent to succeeding, the opposing team’s success might be very costly indeed.
As I said at the start, perhaps not too much should be read into this little parable. Yet the broader question may be the most significant issue of our time: why should Western democratic societies abandon the techniques and thinking that have led to such great success, in order to embrace failure as glorious or victory as shameful?
Putting aside that Rubin, from his tone, sounds like the sort of know-it-all jerk-ass you fear will corner you at a dinner party, his piece, whether he intended it or not, makes some cogent points for a find-the-fucking-center blog like this here blog.
First, just telling kids to “have fun” is not coaching. If the coach, as Rubin has described him, is not actually taking the time and effort to teach the kids something — even if the coach, like many volunteers, doesn’t know a lot about the sport — then that coach is doing them a disservice. On a team of 11-year-olds, there is some expectation that things will get a little more intense, and that players are more likely to play regular positions
When I coach basketball for ages fifth grade and up, I don’t make everyone point guard, and I don’t let everyone play center. You have to show the skills in practice (and for center, the height) to be trusted with the position. I don’t do it just so the team can win. Too many times, I’ve seen players’ confidences broken because they were asked to do things they knew they could not do. To me, the first rule of coaching is put your players in position to succeed. First, by coaching them, and second, by using them in ways that maximize their ability.
So if Rubin’s son had a coach who used “just have fun” as a cover for not coaching, that’s wrong. Rubin was right in that the kids knew who could do what and who couldn’t, and that everyone would have a lot more fun if they won. Especially a team of kids that hadn’t won a game all season. I’ve coached teams that had long losing strings, and that first win is like the Super Bowl mixed with Christmas mixed with your first kiss.
On the other hand, Rubin — though I know he’s trying to restrain himself rhetorically — is wrong in that “everybody gets a trophy” might explain, say, why we haven’t conquered Iraq and Afghanistan. (Or, as another professor told me, why we have school shootings.)
Kids know about competition. Have you ever seen two 3-year-olds fighting over a toy? As I’ve mentioned before, and I’ll mention again, the “just have fun” and “everybody gets a trophy” and no-score leagues are as much — or more — about mollifying parents than it is making sure junior doesn’t cry. At young ages, I like coaching in no-score leagues, because then I can concentrate on teaching kids without having parents worried why I’m playing Little 6-Year-Old Shitface Stoneglove at first base.
As with much in life, it’s all about balance. There is enough pressure in coaching youth sports without thinking that your decisions are going to determine how fast China takes us over. You have to coach to get the best out of your players, but depending on the age and the stated intentions of the league, coaching merely to win might be worse for them in the long term.
I would be curious how Barry Rubin negotiates the egos and politics with his son’s soccer team over the course of a season. I’m sure he could find all sorts of parallels to international affairs in that experience. One possible lesson: being right doesn’t mean that everything goes according to plan, which could result in many thoughtful, reasoned, fucking profanity-filled discussions.
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