Learning the Game

As young parents so many years ago, my wife and I loved to watch our daughters play soccer with their local house-league teammates.  It was their first involvement with team sports of any sort, except for pickup-games at school, and we hoped they’d like it because the concepts of teamwork and sportsmanship are so important in later life.

Now, all this time later, it’s our grandchildren we get to watch—wondering how on earth the time passed so quickly.  Soccer and volleyball are their sports of choice, and they’ve embraced the team approach essential to both.

Having been involved with children’s sports in the past—not just as parents, but as teachers and coaches—my wife and I are still keen to see the atmosphere in which they play.  How competitive is it?  How do their coaches approach the playing of the sport—as games to win at all costs, or as opportunities for the kids to learn the skills of the games?  How encouraging or critical are the parents (and grandparents) on the sidelines?

Well, as it turns out, we’ve had no cause for worry.  The kids are playing for coaches who believe it’s as important to treat opponents with respect as it is to show them how to kick the ball accurately with either foot.  It’s just as important to teach them to shake hands with opposing players at the end of a match as it is to spike a ball past them.  For that we’re very grateful.

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However, we were witnesses recently to two situations that point out the difference between how it should be, and how it all-too-often is.

After a soccer game on an adjoining pitch, two parents were walking their son, perhaps seven years old, toward the parking lot.  The father was particularly vocal as he verbally assailed the boy, and we, watching our granddaughters play, couldn’t help but overhear him.

“What’re you supposed to do when the whistle blows, eh?” was the first question.

The boy’s reply was delivered with head down, inaudible to us.

“You know?” the father said next.  “You know?  Well, it sure didn’t look like you know.  You’re supposed to stop when the whistle blows!”

The boy plodded on, chin on his chest.

“And why were you chasing the ball all over the field, anyway?  What is it about staying in position that you don’t get?  You ever heard of passing the ball?”

By then, they were adjacent to the field where the girls were playing.

“Look!” the father directed his son.  “Look there.  These kids know what to do when the ball goes out of play.  They don’t need their coaches yelling at them to get in position.  And they’re only girls!”

The boy didn’t look, of course.  He just kept going—trailed by his irate father and embarrassed mother—head down, a picture of dejection and simmering shame.

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A number of us on the sidelines glanced at each other, eyebrows raised, silently shaking our heads.

On another occasion, by way of contrast, a friend of our daughter—out to watch her seven-year-old play volleyball—was shocked to see him refuse to shake hands at the end of a losing effort.  Rather than lining up at the net, he stomped to the bench, sulking at the score, and refused to mingle.  Despite her chagrin, she refrained from forcing him into the line-up, and she didn’t chastise him in front of the other boys.  But, as she later told our daughter, she spoke to him about his behaviour after they arrived home.

She asked him a number of questions, including, “How do you think the other kids felt when you wouldn’t shake hands with them?  How would you feel if they didn’t congratulate you if your team won?”

He resisted at first, naturally enough.  But she encouraged him, helping him to place himself in their shoes, a difficult task for a youngster that age.  He eventually acknowledged that being a good sport was important, whether his team won or lost the game.

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Together, they agreed—he somewhat more reluctantly than she, as she reflected later with a rueful smile—that if he couldn’t lose gracefully, he shouldn’t be playing at all.  Next, she had him talk to his coach on the phone, to tell him he must miss the upcoming game because of what he’d done.  The coach commended him for owning up to his mistake.

When that next game was played, the boy was sitting in uniform with his parents on the bleachers, watching and learning.  He didn’t play, but at game’s end, he joined his teammates in the line at the net.  Since then, there’s been no problem with his attitude, and he’s played in every game.  He’s often first in line now, I’m told, to shake hands with the other side, win or lose.

When I think about these two episodes, there seems no doubt as to which boy learned the most—the one who was accosted out of anger and frustration, or the one who was encouraged to talk about, and face, the consequences of his actions.  The one who was humiliated, or the one who was left with his dignity intact.

What was it that each boy learned from the exchanges?  And which boy has the best chance to grow into a mature, respectful young man?  A devoted husband?  A nurturing father?

Next to caring teachers and coaches, good parents are every child’s best friends.  Good parents lift their children high, hug them close, then let them go.

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Of course, I have to add that wise grandparents are pretty awesome, too!

 

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