Viewpoint

Playing isn’t always about winning

tsepulveda@thetribunenews.com November 15, 2013 

Here’s a plea for sanity on Saturdays. Or really on any day when a youth sport is being played.

Remember, parents and coaches: The games are not about winning. Recreational sports are just for fun. There is nothing to be gained from running up the score, mocking your opponent or screaming at players and referees.

This isn’t some clueless parent sending this reminder out. As a former semi-pro soccer player and longtime club and high school coach, I’ve been involved in my share of meaningful games, and I’ve come out on both sides of the ledger. I treasure those memories. But they do not define me.

Club sports and high school sports emphasize winning. But in recreational sports, fun and learning are the focus. The only competitive element to it is that we keep score. I have been coaching my son’s soccer team for several seasons, and like all coaches, I’ve had good teams and bad teams. I’ve coached in several cities over the years since I began in high school, as a way to give back to the sport the valuable life lessons and confidence it had given me. I’ve very rarely run into blowouts.

What surprises me is how often opposing coaches in San Luis Obispo County run the score up. I firmly believe it is a failure on the part of coaches when a recreational game turns into a rout. In soccer, there are many ways to prevent it — sub out your top players, force offensive players to move to defense, require your team to make 10 passes before shooting a goal, to name a few. Instead, what I’ve many times is players dribbling the length of the field and scoring, coaches screaming at their team to add more goals when it is already 6-0 or worse, and parents and players mocking the blown-out team.

Some coaches encourage parents to sign up for their team year after year, giving them an advantage (both in talent and in time spent practicing together) over other rec teams. Some small towns have such small populations that the same kids play for the same coach year after year. Some rec teams allow club players to play for them.

To coaches who want to run up the score, I offer this suggestion: Go play club ball. Recreational sports are for kids to learn about the game, get some exercise and have fun. You play to win the game, that’s true, but a 3-0 win counts the same as a 9-0 win. A team’s players shouldn’t leave the field completely demoralized in a recreational game. Show a little sportsmanship and class, and call off the dogs.

At coaches’ meetings in the past, when I brought this up, I’ve been told “If you don’t like it, then stop us.” That is completely antithetical to the stated mission of a youth recreational league such as AYSO: Have fun.

This is not a complaint about losing, either. I believe losing offers a wonderful opportunity to teach the life lesson of dealing with adversity. I also believe that losing is a sharp teacher, and it allows players to learn from their mistakes. Plus, it is more important to me to see growth as a player and a person than results on the field at the recreational level.

But being blown out does affect a child’s self-esteem. And in rec sports, where there should be no kill-or-be-killed attitude, there is simply no reason for it.

Let me say this: You are not a better coach for winning big. You are not more successful, and it does not validate your coaching style, philosophy or prowess. In recreational sports, it simply makes you small and petty. There is no amount of beating up on hapless teams that will erase the sting of whatever failures you had when you were younger.

If you have a good team and you desperately need the high you get from leading your team to victory, take the next step. Play teams at your skill level. Don’t bring your club-lite teams to a recreational league and think that somehow that makes you a bright coach.

It makes you a bully.

Tom Sepulveda is an opinionated copy editor at The Tribune. Reach him at 781-7915 or tsepulveda@thetribunenews.com.

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