Why can't they just win?

One of our summer family "entertainments" is traveling to various southern metro soccer fields and watching one of the children play soccer. This happens roughly twice a week, but in some weeks (if there is a tournament) we could be watching one of them play soccer almost every night of the week. Last night was such a night, we had a roughly 30 minute drive to watch J play. The field was a good one, there was ample parking (even if it was a huge trek from the parking lot to the field), plenty of garbage cans (important because even our dog comes with and sometimes you need to clean up after her business), and there was a great playground - which meant S didn't have to suffer through watching her brother play for any longer than she wanted to. It was also a beautiful night, not too hot, not buggy, and pretty pleasant to be sitting or standing on the sidelines of the soccer field watching one of your children play the game he/she loves.

Not from last night's game (J is #22)

The game started out well. J's team scored a quick goal, and they were playing pretty well. At some point that flipped though, and the other team scored a lot more goals. I won't go into the play by play because that really doesn't matter, but you can guess from this post's title that they lost. One of the other parents from the team expressed some frustration about the fact that they always lose as we were doing the pack up the chairs and walk over to wait for the boys to finish with their post game coach chat. This parent said that it was getting old to be driving all over the place and spending a bunch of money if they are always going to lose. I didn't really know what to say in response. I said that I thought their coach was doing a good job, and that we'd seen improvement in the boys' passing and just kind of nodded along as that parent mildly vented. I won't pretend that it isn't somewhat frustrating to watch your child lose a lot of games in a season. However, I was happy at the end of the game that J was smiling and laughing with one of his good friends on the team, and wasn't dwelling on the result. Earlier in the season he was so frustrated after one loss that he didn't talk aside from irritated grunts for at least an hour after we got home.

We spend a lot of money as a family on soccer every year. Both kids play two seasons of traveling soccer each year, and that is not cheap. I won't do the math because it will make me ill, most of the traveling soccer parents likely put it directly out of their mind as soon as they write the team fees checks because if you dwell on it you wouldn't be happy. J is also a member of a soccer training academy where he gets extra coaching all year long. He is doing a few extra soccer camps this summer too. S would do soccer camps as well, but her summer musical rehearsal schedule means that we can't really fit in any for her. Should we expect to earn a return on our "investment" in the way of wins? How much is one win worth? A season of wins? Is a season of losses not worth the same?

For every game played there is a winner and a loser (or maybe they tie), does the winning team deserve to play more than the losing team does? Do the kids on the winning team get more out of the experience? I know it is more fun to win, but sometimes your team is just not the better team that day. Sometimes your team makes mistakes, sometimes the other team has some really fast forwards, and passes well, and you can't defend it every single time. Sometimes there are kids on the losing team that have excellent skills, and play their hearts out, but their team still loses. The focus on the outcome of the game is where most of us go first, and it doesn't matter how many articles we read about saying "I loved watching you play" at the conclusion of whatever event we still ask if they won or lost. I know that focus is misplaced, but in a culture of winners and losers and as a backlash to everyone gets a trophy (which I don't think exists anywhere outside of sports for very young kids) we focus on wins. I won't pretend that I don't get caught up in it too at times.

Last season J's team won more games than they have so far this year. But last year every time J had a practice or game he would complain about having to go to soccer, and at the conclusion of every practice he was in a bad mood. This year he has a new coach, is excited to go to soccer, needs little reminding to get ready, and mostly comes away in a good mood. His confidence on the field has increased tremendously. He has become really good at taking corner kicks, crossing the ball in front of the net for scoring opportunities, mastered a bunch of footwork skills with names I can't remember, and has scored a handful of goals. When you put all of those pieces together I think they make a successful season.

When we as parents put the focus solely on the outcome of every game we are vastly missing the point. S's team has played at least two different teams this year that were playing dirty. She is at the U10 gold level - which is the lower of the two U10 levels in our state and U10 overall doesn't have official standings. Basically wins and losses at the U10 level mean nothing more than we make of them. So why were girls from those teams pinching girls on S's team when the ref wasn't around to see? S tells me that in one case a girl dug her fingernail into S's teammate's leg and drew blood. WTF is that? Now whether that is the full truth, or somewhat exaggerated for a good story I can't be sure because I was at those games and didn't see it. Playing dirty is only a viable tactic if winning is the only thing that matters and your team doesn't have the skill to win without it - so basically it is never an option. The fact that any youth soccer team would be playing dirty to include pinching players from the other team is incomprehensible to me and yet it has happened with two different teams S has played this season. The only way stuff like this happens is because we as parents want to see our darling children win, and it is why so many kids quit sports by the time they are 13 or 14. Win at all costs does something to our culture - we don't want our kids to be bullies, but it is okay if they beat up on other kids at the soccer field if it is in the name of a win.

I'd much rather see my kids' teams lose every game if the alternative is playing dirty. Focus on foot skills, focus on passing, focus on shooting, and above all else focus on going out with your teammates and having fun - but if your attitude is that it isn't worth it to play at all if you never win? Maybe ask yourself why it is so important to win. Even if my U12 player was on the best team in the state, and won the state tournament for his level does that make him more worthy of love? Outside of the soccer community in our state would anyone even notice that it happened? T loves soccer, and will play a pick up game with others any chance he gets. Does he care if he wins or loses? I doubt it. He just likes to go out there and play. Why would we take that away from our kids at 12 years old? Absolutely celebrate victories, and be disappointed by losses, but keep it in perspective for yourself and your kids. Working hard to master skills is rewarding, and we don't always need external validation in the way of a win to be proud of ourselves. I went for a run this morning, and it sucked. I was tired, and I walked a bunch because I had very little energy for a variety of reasons. Did I come home and tell myself that I should quit running because a route that should take me no more than 42 minutes took me a lot longer than that? No, I came home, took a shower, started my day, and was thankful that I got to be outside by myself moving my body for 4 miles today.

Winning is nice, but it isn't the point. Sports teach our kids a lot of valuable life lessons, and one of them is that we don't always come out on top. We can do our best and still not win, and we still wake up the next day and get to have new experiences. During the walk to our cars I walked with another parent and J's coach. He said something about the soccer gods not being favorable to the team this year. I like the sentiment - J's team had some nice shots that went just wide or that the goalie saved, and the other team had some lucky bounces and some nice shots that did go in. I said that it was nice to see the team passing into space - even if some of those passes were a little too far into space, and he said that yes they had been working on that. Putting things from practice into the games, even if you aren't perfect is exactly what it is about. I won't pretend that my son is always happy to lose, but him being allowed to take risks, being allowed to go out there and mess up and come out still being okay - that is what it is about. Rather than saying it is too bad that you lost, I asked J if he had fun. Despite the loss he said that he did, and that is what matters. Life lessons on the soccer field...

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