Thank you for Participating

On the soccer field today, the littlest nuggets were hanging back. Their attention was elsewhere, more interested in belly-bumping and kicking up dirt clouds than running drills with one another. Yes, it was hot out and sunny – but most of the kids were born in Florida and arguably acclimated to the heat. Sweat trickled down their hairlines, their temples and in tiny beads under their eyes. Water breaks were given almost every five minutes – and with it a chance to hide out under their parents’ umbrellas – or in certain cases – full on pop-up canopies were used.

A few players had just gotten over the stomach flu, or Flu A or Flu B at the chagrin of parents who had been vigilant in handwashing and signed their kids up for a preventative Flu shot and they seemed to wilt further in their jerseys as the minutes inched by. Despite two coaches on the field and active parents on the sidelines calling our cheerful urgings, the players were mostly unmoved. It’s the weather, we reasoned, and they’ve been sick enough to miss school a few days, we continued, in an effort to excuse their unanimous disinterest.
The coach rallied once more after warm up before the game started – asking players to dig deep, go after the ball, work together, go for goals. Their response was swift and stinging. They’d won the last three games, they’d already secured multiple MVP medals, and they’d scored LAST week. It hurt to hear.

I remember playing sports differently, and I know I am not alone. The triumph of a hard fought win, the agony of defeat. The mental scoreboard I had always updated made it known exactly what it would take to tie or win or even be outscored. Often times, in this league, the kids will quizzically ask if they are winning, and when it’s confirmed that they are, they take satisfaction and have no desire to know any more about it. Somehow we had it twisted that it somehow spoke to our kids’ abilities to play for fun, or the love of the game by not needing to know the score, but lately it seems a lot more like apathy.
Team sports, I have long believed are an essential part of childhood. No matter if it’s an informal game of horse with kids in the neighborhood around a basketball hoop, or a paid league – I think there are invaluable lessons to be learned while working with people toward a common goal. But I don’t know now if my memories are softer than the reality of kids sports that I spectate.

Today’s game ended in a tie: the first non-win for them. When the coach asked how the players thought they did, one boy raised his hand and said “we were terrible” but with a satisfactory smile on his face because he knew he had given “the right answer”. There was no other player who countered him and no one that suggested they would try harder next time around. The general consensus was that “they’d showed up”.

Because of my own battle in the arena of “please JUST GO (to school without sobbing and clinging on to me)” I feel like a complete hypocrite when I say – maybe that is not enough. Our kids (mine included) felt that they had somehow effectively “done their part” by just being there as they knew that someone would be collecting a medal no matter the input or effort. While I understand incentivizing doing hard or unpleasant things I have found that even the fun and easy things that kids have the privilege of doing are being packaged and sold to them under the banner of “free gift with purchase” and it’s having the opposite effect. In our attempt to rally our kids and buoy their self-esteem, we have seemingly thwarted their ability to do it on their own.

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