Sportsmanship? Character? … WIN AT ALL COSTS! … (Part I)

Nick’s note:  I started writing this blog post before the Penn State story broke.  Talk about sadly ironic timing.  I think I want to continue to write the blog post I intended to write, because it’s important, even if it’s not tragic on the scale of the other story (and by tragic, I refer to the victims, not the predator or his numerous criminal enablers).  Then I’ll write on the really ugly story.  No funny pictures to go with this one… it has me in a somber mood.

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  A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook that her 10 year old son was playing his final Pop Warner football game of the season.  A championship game.
  The other team showed up and it was discovered that the other coach had “padded” his roster with the best players from a few other teams.  Of course, they had to forfeit the game; after the other coach tried unsuccessfully to lie his way out of it.  Then he allowed his players to talk trash to the team that followed the rules.
  It’s sad to see how often children’s sports are ruined by adults who don’t understand that when all is said and done, it is just a game.  Whether by cheating, or otherwise displaying poor sportmanship … or by sacrificing the happiness of what should be a fun experience by an over-emphasis on excellence, “adults” are ruining kids’ sports and teaching them all the wrong lessons.
  Before I go any further, let me say I’m not one of these ‘self-esteem’ yahoos that believe there should be no winners and losers – no keeping score, even – so that everyone can come out a winner.  Far from it.  Life has winners and losers,  and that’s a lesson that should be learned early.  Otherwise, your children might wind up in an “Occupy” protest, sporting dreadlocks, pounding on tomtoms, and whining about how unfair life is.
   I should also be up front about my sports experience.  As a child: one or two seasons of Little League baseball, one season of soccer, football in 7th grade, a few boxing lessons.  Not very extensive compared to some kids.  As a parent: one season of Little League and a “season” or so of karate lessons.  Still, you don’t have to be an expert to see the problems. 
   You hear about stories like my friend’s.  You read about them in the news if they’re notable enough.  And you see the parents at the games, usually the dads, but not always (and the parents I’m talking about here are mostly in the minority, but they’re the ones ruining it for everyone). 
   You see the fathers screaming at their sons… demanding perfection… defining their father-son relationship, and their son’s sense of self worth, through their ability to throw, catch, or hit a ball.  You see the parents who yell at the coach for not playing their child enough.  You see the ones who run their mouths at the children on the other team.  Sad, and so immature.
   Or you find it in more subtle ways.  I was reading an online forum some time ago where baseball dads were writing about the difference between open leagues and select leagues.  For those of you that don’t know, open leagues are like the Little League we grew up with; everyone can sign up (whether everyone plays is dependent on the coach and his attitude on the whole fun vs winning issue).  Additionally, these leagues tend to operate a little closer to home and are thus more community-oriented. 
  Select leagues are more “professional”.  The kids have to try out, and only those who those who have the skills make the cut.  Also, it  can be quite expensive (entry fees, equipment, travel costs, etc); some boys could have the athletic skills, but be excluded because their parents don’t have the financial means.

  Anyhow, it fascinated me… in a bad way, like a train wreck.  Here’s why: 
  Almost unanimously, the baseball dads agreed that open leagues were more character-building.  I see where they’re going here.  Kids of different ability levels, you’re going to win some and lose some, but if the coaches have character, the kids will have fun and learn teamwork despite the different skill levels.    
   As for select leagues, the dads agreed that they were better for the developing their boys as players, honing their athletic skills by playing with and against superior athletes.  I understand this point too.

   Now here’s the part that really bothers me.   I saw the same pattern repeated again and again in these comments, until I quit reading in disgust.  These men repeatedly said that the open leagues were better for building character and that the select leagues were better for developing athletes… and almost all of them said the preferred the select leagues. 
   REALLY?!?
   Really?  That makes my heart hurt.  In so many words, again and again, most of them said that it was more important to develop their sons as baseball players than to build character.  Where are their priorites?  Oh, I’m sure that if confronted with the shameless irony of what they had just said, they’d hem and haw and find excuses.  They teach character themselves…. in other ways…
   Wrong.  They’d be lying to themselves.  And they do it because they know, deep down, that these are the lessons they’re not supposed to be teaching their children.  But they go against what they know to be right because they get all caught up in winning and being the best as the only things that matter… most often driven by the desire to live vicariously through their sons. 
   The win at all costs mentality teaches the wrong lessons and the exact opposite of sportsmanship and character.  Want proof?  Penn State.
   Read on in Part II… to follow very soon.

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