One by one the kids got a high five, and a “good stuff”, and a “great job”. They got incredible accolades. They were treated like champs. They had just allowed the fourth goal in a lopsided shutout defeat. It wasn’t MLS soccer. It was youth soccer and our team had just gotten squashed in a game where no official score was tallied and everyone cheered for everyone regardless of what was really going on. My own daughter wasn’t immune. She had incredible moments of stopping the opponents in between many other moments of talking with friends, staring around, running for water breaks. And it got me thinking about the state of kids sports nowadays where parents are trained to reward averageness and kids are trained to expect rewards no matter how they do. Are we training our kids that mediocrity is just fine.
I loved playing basketball when I was a kid. I wasn’t any good at it. But I loved playing. I worked and worked and worked and couldn’t wait for the first time I made a basket. The highlight of my entire youth basketball experience came in one game where I scored six points. I KNEW I had contributed to the team. I had worked hard for those six points. I knew the difference between winning and losing and I wanted to win. I went on to play youth football. I wasn’t any good at it. I worked and worked and worked. I NEVER got any good at it but at least I tried my best. No one berated me because I wasn’t any good, but they didn’t bestow golden accolades on me either. I knew realistically what I was and wasn’t good at and what I needed to do to improve.
Which brings me back to the lopsided soccer game. Having been a soccer parent for several years now, I’ve been programmed with the same “Fun, Fair, Safe” attitude that everyone else has. I know we’re trying to build confidence in kids. And just like the soccer manual implores, I cheer on everyone no matter what they do and how they do it. But an interesting thing happened today. My daughter came off the field and we congratulated her on the way they played. Right away she remarked that their team hadn’t won. No one kept score. No one announced a score. No one announced a winner. But she knew it anyway. She KNEW they hadn’t won. Maybe it stung a little. Maybe not. But maybe next time she’ll try a little harder and talk a little less and move the ball a little more with her teammates. And maybe that’s a good thing. Having seen the kids a few years older, where parents are still encouraged to cheer for everyone, the kids take scores VERY seriously, and like it or not, they play to win.
I think we should encourage good sportsmanship, and encourage good sports, and encourage hard work to improve skills and to excel. But we don’t need to hide and sugarcoat the truth. We don’t need to talk down to our kids no matter what age they are. Which makes me believe even more that we should deal with kids honestly, with honest expectations, to put them on a real and true path to success. Am I crazy here?
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