“It’s only a game.” Adorned in their luminous green-and-yellow uniforms, these 5- and 6-year-olds assemble each week. They have been designated a team. No two of them are identical in size, skill levels or confidence. My role as coach is defined early in the season. “We’re here to learn about soccer, make new friends and have fun,” I inform them.
As with the teams before them, I never emphasize winning. More than once, I have had players ask me while pouring the after-game Gatorade: “Did we win?” Long after the season has concluded, they frequently forget the win-loss record, but they never repress the hurt that can develop from an overzealous coach or parent on the sideline.
Where do we draw the line? A small, neophyte player once told me that, no matter how loudly the crowd roared, he could always detect his father’s comments. From that day on, that little guy’s new field position became “farthest away from Dad.”
During our weekly practice, we learn skills such as passing the ball, playing in position, and such simple tasks as keeping both feet on the ground when you throw the ball in from the sidelines.
However, at game time on Saturday, try as they might, their small bodies cannot incorporate all their new skills and suggestions from the sidelines, while operating under the eyes of spectators. Now is the opportunity to reward all their efforts with “Good play, Claire,” “Well done, Christopher,” “Terrific save, Kyle,” “That a boy, Alfonso,” “Fantastic, Lisa.”
One coach of young children urged the parents to “cheer each child’s personal victory and gains” and cautioned that at this age, “winning should not be emphasized because then defeat becomes too large a burden for small shoulders to carry.”
Last year, at a competition for young adolescents, a parent yelled obscenities at the referees. In a sense, it was a learning experience for our son. Like all the players on the field, he winced at the parent’s inappropriate behavior.
How should we define appropriate behavior? Perhaps as Thumper’s father did in the childhood book about Bambi: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”
That may be a good motto for sports as well.
During a spring baseball game, a spectator hollered to the young batter, “Just bunt it.” It was a comment that did not elude the anxious batter or his father seated next to me. “Give it all you’ve got, son,” his father yelled in encouragement. The resulting double brought the fans to their feet.
“What a stupid play” may not be heard by the high school quarterback on the 15-yard line who just threw the interception, but it is usually heard by the quarterback’s parents in the stands. Possibly, when the player on the field makes $100,000 a season, and the ticket holder must pay $15 to watch the player, maybe then we can criticize. A former professional player once remarked that he believed the bellowing of a parent was indirectly related to that parent’s own skill level.
A wise parent perceives that he or she will only be capable of instilling some of life’s most important values in their children. There is a definite role for sports to augment our position as educators and parents. I am grateful to the coaches who stressed courtesy, fair play, team effort, punctuality and a “good attitude” with our children. What could conceivably have been a lecture in our home this fall was condensed into one phrase by a junior varsity football coach: “Academics first, football second.”
It is essentially a task for all of us to put the game into proper perspective. When the score is 1-1 in the fourth quarter, the crowd is roaring for victory, and miniature offensive players scramble exhaustively to score once more while defensive players anxiously guard their goal, I pause and recall a crumpled tennis racquet and a note.
The racquet and note were left behind in Flint, Mich., this summer at The Moving Wall, a 250-foot-long, half-scale replica of Washington’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The racquet and note were placed there on a warm summer morning by a man in a nearby town who had driven to see the name of a friend. The note narrated the rivalry that had been cultivated over the years between these two players. Then it addressed their last tournament, 20 years earlier.
“This is the racquet I played with that day,” the note said to the player, David C. Shultz, whose name appears on Wall 54F. “I lost to you. You were a wonderful person and a terrific player. The best.”
Long after the games and tournaments are over, and the win-loss records are tabulated, we are reminded that “it’s only a game.” It’s the players who count.