Soccer is a physical sport. I know that. And as kids get older, the game gets more aggressive. There is shoving, jockeying for space, and yes, sometime people get hurt. I get that. Someone misses the ball and a kid gets kicked in the shin (hence the shin guards). A ball to the gut and the wind is knocked out of you. Again, it happens.
But I recently watched a game where the other team’s actions were definitely more on the deliberate than careless side of things. I get if you inadvertently raise your arm and push your opponent away once (the same goes for lifting your hands to your face to prevent getting whacked in the head). It’s a natural reaction, instinctual. But then it is the job of the referee to discourage the behavior (elbows can be used, but cannot be lifted to shoulder height nor can outstretched hands be used), and if the referee does not establish this rule early, then this is to the detriment of the players, both teams, and the sport as a whole.
During this particular game, several parents yelled out, complaining whenever these egregious calls were missed-—when our kids were knocked down, shoved in the back, or tripped-—until the referee came to the sideline to address us.
“If you don’t want your kids in a contact sport,” he said, “sign them up for tennis.”
(I’m going to ignore the disrespect and snarkiness in this statement to stay on point). To be clear, it’s not contact I have trouble with; it’s the violence.
There’s a difference, a distinction that was not being made. The fact that egregious unsportsmanlike behavior, rather than being stopped, is instead accepted as part of the game, thus concerns me. The win-at-all-costs philosophy is not a lesson that is going to serve kids well in the long run.
Why do I bring this up? Consider our goals in signing up our kids to play soccer (or any sport). We want them to learn about teamwork, about sportsmanship, about perseverance. We want them to have fun, to fulfill commitments, to keep track of their time and belongings (What? You left your cleats at home?!), and be good sports. And for now, the phrase ‘good sport’ still implies playing by the rules, respecting good performances, and winning and losing graciously.
It’s so easy as a parent to feel protective of your child. As a spectator, it’s also easy to view the opponent’s team as ‘the enemy’ (another dangerous tendency). And you have no reason to trust that I don’t demonize opponents. But perhaps I can assuage your concerns by mentioning that 1) I watch so much damn soccer that I can’t care about the outcome of any particular game, 2) I will yell out congratulations for a strong play by an opponent (‘great save, keeper’ is an oft-repeated refrain), and 3) if our kid commits a penalty, I will tell my fellow parents that it’s a legit call.
After any game, I ask my boys (and anyone else I’m driving) three questions, and three questions only:
1) Did you have fun?
2) Did you try your hardest?
3) Were you a good sport?
Beyond that, I don’t care about the game. I’m not expecting my kids to go to college on a sports scholarship. I’m sure they’ll never make Team USA. I hope they’ll play varsity in high school, but if they don’t I hope they’ll doing something physically active.
When my kid goes home after a loss, I want him to focus on the parts of the game that he and his teammates need to improve for next time, not dwell in the injustice of missed calls. Having a place where rules exist–and breaking the rules has consequences–helps him learn bigger life lessons about boundaries and fairness.
But when instead of skill, a player resorts to playing dirty to gain an advantage in the game when skill and/or speed won’t suffice, when getting the ball and winning the game become more important to the child than the well-being of another human, then it is the responsibility of those in charge—-the coach, the referee, the parents—-to reinforce the proper message.
The game is not bigger than the player. The ball is not more important than the human.