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Posted by on Sep 15, 2012 in Blog, Essays | 1 comment

The Penalty Kick



Writer’s Note:  The next two blog entries are follow-up to a controversial column posted two weeks ago on former NFL coach Vince Lombardi’s famous creed — winning is everything.  I received some interesting e-mails in response.

One reader was emotionally affected by the discussion.  He was kind enough to share his perspectives with me about his own experiences as an amateur baseball coach.  I was so impressed with his outlook on what coaching and teaching really means, that I requested permission to reprint his email.  He graciously agreed.  His thoughts are posted in Part II.  The title is “The Dropped Third-Strike Drill” — coming tomorrow. 

Part I (below) recounts my experience several years ago as a little league soccer coach.


It’s Saturday.

On ball fields all across America, millions of kids and parents of those kids will be cheering and having fun.  But there will also be a lot of ugliness.

You know what kind of ugliness I’m referring to.  You’ve seen it.  You’ve experienced it.  It may have even crept into your own team or family.  It is the ugliness that comes from the twisted mantra — winning is everything.

No.  In fact, winning is not everything.  In many cases, it’s not even that big a thing.  Or at least, it shouldn’t be.

Many years ago, I coached a boys soccer team.  I took the voluntary position because I had been a licensed USSF soccer referee for about five years.  Refereeing kids soccer games subjected me to some serious abuse.  But I loved the game and therefore was determined to get more involved as a head coach.  I also played a few seasons in an adult league as a goalkeeper.  Believe it or not, I was on the local Catholic Church team.  We were called the Crusaders.  And we sucked.

I lasted two seasons as a head coach.  We were known as the Zavala Vikings.  I enjoyed working with those kids, so much.  They must all be grown up now.  I wonder what happened to some of them.  Occasionally, I also wonder if the things I did and said on the field helped them in some small way.

I took over a group of kids that was as dominant a team as there was in its age division.  I inherited a first-place championship team that was comprised mostly of 9-year-olds.  The kids had slaughtered everyone when they were grouped in the lower age classes.  I took over a veteran team in the sense these kids had all played together for a couple of years.

I remember the league meeting I attended just prior to the start of the soccer season.  Since we were mostly made up of 9-year-olds, we had the option of playing (again) in the lower class of our age division.  The upper age class was mostly comprised of kids that were 10-years-old.  However, because of the lack of balance, a few of the teams from the lower division were asked to volunteer to move up into the higher division.

Since we had won the last two championships, I thought this would be a good test for our kids.  I vowed to take our team and play them against kids mostly a year older.  Sure, this would be tougher competition.  But in the long run, our kids would be challenged more and hopefully develop faster due to the increased quality of play.  I also was influenced by the notion (blasphemy, I would come to discover) that it’s probably not the best thing for kids to go out and win every game.  Character is built not by winning.  It’s also developed by losing, or at least being tested.

Well, you can probably see where this is headed.  The ending is not a happy one.

We played the first season.  The other teams were tougher than those we had faced in previous years.  Our team won exactly half of our games.  We missed the playoffs.

Prior to the start of the next season, some of the parents began grumbling.  They wanted to know why I had insisted their kids play in the tougher league.  It was a fair question.  After all, no parent wants to see their child risk injury or be hurt by better and stronger competition.  But the more I argued with the parents, the more I came to realize their objection was not about their children’s safety.  It was about winning.  They were used to winning, and I as their coach was not delivering the victories quick enough.

I thought my intent was noble.  I hoped to coach those kids over several years.  No doubt, the Zavala Vikings would have been an outstanding team after a few seasons of playing the best kids they could face and then dropping back down into their own age group.  I think that would have created an ideal balance of winning and losing over a formidable period in their lives.  More importantly, it would have taught the kids to challenge themselves and learn from their different experiences.

In my two seasons as a coach, I never heard one word of sorrow or disappointment from any of those boys.  Not a word.  They didn’t even seem to think that winning was that important.  Sure, we wanted to win.  But having fun was the real goal.  The kids got it.  The parents didn’t.

During our second season, we began to lose.  We lost more games than we won.  I think we went 4-9 or something like that.  In the midst of the losing streak, I had parents screaming at me for field decisions I made.  One ugly incident took place during the middle of the season.  We were playing the first-place team and the game was tied.  I was so proud of our kids.  It was late in the game and we were awarded a penalty kick.  This was our chance to win the game.

I used a method of rotation, where each of the four forwards (two wings and two strikers) rotated taking the kicks.  Of course, one of the boys was clearly the star player.  He was much better than anyone else on the team.  Thing was, it wasn’t his turn to take the penalty kick.

The arguments on the sideline just prior to taking that kick stick with me to this day.  My assistant coach threatened to quit on the spot if I did not allow his kid to take the kick (of course, this was the father of the star player).  I stuck to my guns.

As planned, one of the wings took the kick instead.  He missed.

We lost the game 2-1.

From that moment forward, coaching was never fun for me.  Neither was refereeing.  It wasn’t just that incident, but many other things I observed over time.  Just about everything that disgusted me stemmed from the misguided priorities of those around me.  I gradually came to realize the mentality of “winning at all costs” has become an epidemic on our culture.  It doesn’t just apply to little league and sports, anymore.  It applies to everything.  “Winning is everything” grandfathered “greed is good.”

I pretty much left the game once and for all — as a coach, as a referee, and as a player — after that painful season.

I have not gone back to a kids soccer game since.


COMING NEXT:  Part II of this series which includes the perspective of a former little league softball coach will be posted tomorrow.  I so admire the way he handles this same situation in a positive way.


1 Comment

  1. It is sad that the parents who teach their children that winning is everything are the same people who shape and mold these kids’ entire value system. As you say, the challenges of sports can be a great character builder, but with improper guidance, the experiences can lead to a destruction of character.

    Winning is easy — just schedule weaker opponents. That proves nothing. If you want to build character and grow, you must challenge yourself by facing stronger opponents and deal with the fact that often times the scoreboard will show that you have lost. Some scores however, cannot be shown on a scoreboard. The final score NEVER accurately measures what took place on the field.

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