Zero Tolerance

3 Nov

I’m not sure of the exact total. I think the kids scored 40 goals, but maybe the actual number was only in the high 30’s. I am certain, though, of the other total. It’s impossible to forget a big, fat zero.

The Spartans, my son Rumi’s team in the Grades 1 and 2 boys’ division of the Northampton Rec Department soccer league, played six games this fall and won all of them, which only stands to reason because it’s impossible to lose when you don’t give up any goals. These kids were badass. Going a full season without surrendering a single score is a remarkable feat at any level but especially in a league with no goalies, where all it takes is one long kick to slip through your defense or one ball to be deflected toward the orange cones that mark your goal. But no opponent even came close to scoring on us.

I was co-coach of the Spartans along with my friend Tim, and while it may be puzzling for you to read this, I found this season to be a daunting experience.

The difficult part was not keeping a dozen 6- and 7-year-olds focused long enough each Saturday morning for them to learn a few fundamentals of the game, although that had its challenges. The boys always rose to the occasion, and they even heeded our advice when Tim and I emphasized the little things that in youth soccer make a big difference between winning and losing (“never, ever pass the ball across in front of your goal, boys”). So how can a 6-0 record and 40-0 goal differential be anything but a walk in Look Park? Because we had to teach the kids how to be good winners. Graceful, not gloating.

Our opening game, we scored in the early minutes, and the kids celebrated like they’d just won the World Cup. OK, I thought, it’s the first game, first goal, I’ll let them get it out of their system. But with each successive score, the celebration grew — cheers, laughter, a pile of kids rolling around on the grass. When it was time for a water break, as the other team left the field with heads hung low, Tim and I huddled up our kids, who were the embodiment of bliss.

“You guys are playing great,” Tim began.

“Yeah, it’s 6-0!” said his son, our most skilled and aggressive player, drawing some “yeah!” responses from around the circle.

“They haven’t scored a goal!” Rumi chimed in, to laughter and cheers.

“Boys, boys,” I said, settling them down. “You guy are playing great, like Coach said, but we have to be good winners. Does anybody know what it means to be a good winner?”

Silence. Blank stares.

“OK, I’ll explain. Look over there at the other team. Do they look like they’re having fun?”

“No!” a few of the Spartans said, and some laughter broke out.

I held up my hand to quiet them, then said, “Now imagine if you were on that team. Would you be enjoying this game?”

Nobody said a word. The empathy impulse was doing battle with the boys’ desire for us to stop talking so they could just get back out there and play.

“Would you like it?” I repeated.

“No,” was the response from about half the players, the others still silent.

“OK, let’s not make them feel worse than they already do. Keep playing hard, but if you score a goal, no more yelling or dancing or anything. Let’s just trot back to midfield for the kickoff. Can we do that?”

Silence again.

“Can we?”

“Yes,” two or three said quietly. I felt bad, like I’d just popped their balloon or stolen their Halloween candy. But it had to be done.

We scored a few more goals that day, and for the most part the Spartans remembered to keep things low-key. I’m not sure they understood why they were doing it, any more than they understood why we didn’t want them passing the ball in front of our goalmouth. But they did what we asked, and I think they still had fun. Actually, I know they had fun.

Over the course of the season, a pattern emerged: We’d wildly celebrate our first goal or two each weekend, then become more businesslike for the rest of the game. I was prouder of the kids for keeping their poise than I was for all of the fancy goals they scored. Because in order to become good winners, they pretty much had to figure it out for themselves.

Where does a kid turn in order to learn how to be a good sport? Don’t bother to flip on the TV to find role models. Yes, there are some good sports in the pro game, but the TV cameras tend to ignore them and instead follow the guys who choreograph end zone dances or pull out Sharpies or cell phones. That’s entertainment, I suppose.

Pro and even college sports are infested by bad sportsmanship. I don’t watch high school sports (my time will come), but I imagine I will find the same to be true there too. It’s only a matter of time before it infests youth sports as well. But not on my watch.

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One Response to “Zero Tolerance”

  1. Bruce Kennedy November 4, 2010 at 9:37 pm #

    Jeff,

    Ali played soccer this Fall, it was her third session and I was assistant coach. We have about 200 kids on the fields at one time and it’an incredible site. Good work on the sportsmanship aspect, it’s important.
    Bruce

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