The Tragedy of Children’s Sports and What You can Do About it

Part I: Despair on the Playing Field

[Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series by Contributor Marc Machiz.]

If you’re like me, all discussions of sports begin with trauma.  Growing up, I was that cliché, the pudgy kid picked last for every team. My signature sports moment came around fifth grade when the little league team I played on (as the kid in left field who couldn’t catch a fly ball) designated me to be traded to the first-place team.  If you’re an athlete, this might strike you as good news.  But our league had a practice of making the teams more competitive at midseason by trading the worst player from the last place team (my team) for the best player from the first-place team.  Imagine the ignominy of meeting your new teammates: “Hi, I’m here to ruin your chances.” 

Adding insult to this system was an end of season sportsmanship award given to all those traded; the hero who joined the last place team got the same award as the goat sent to lay waste to the first-place team.  This was the culmination of a humiliating sports career made more poignant by my father’s place as a brilliant Short Center on his Saturday morning softball league team.  He was such an enthusiast that he was among the founders of the town’s Little League before I, his oldest child, was ready for nursery school.  To say I was a disappointment would be a droll understatement.  I dealt with this moment with the strength of character that would come to define me:  I quit.

Team sports for kids are a brutal sorting mechanism.  We play together, but everyone on the team knows where they stand.  The quarterback, the first pitcher in the rotation, the point guard, the striker–these are the alpha dogs of the playing field.  The rest of us take our spots according to our abilities; our peers know what to expect of us.  The virtues of team play, the lessons of sportsmanship and subordinating the self to a larger cause are vastly overstated.  I speak here not just as a failed child athlete, but as a mid-life soccer coach.

I was as unskilled and untalented at soccer as I was at baseball, and kid’s coaches in the suburbs of D.C., where we raised our family, were almost invariably the full-grown versions of the kids I’d envied growing up.   So, what was I doing coaching soccer?

“Auntie Linda, you know how Dad learned how to coach soccer?” my son and team member derisively asked my sister.  “He read a book.”

I came by my coaching gig the same way I played sports as a kid.  I was picked last.  My son’s team had been coached by talented athletes and had in turn been well stocked with talented athletes.  The coach and the most capable kids were moving up to form the nucleus of a travel team the following season.   My son’s coach approached me on the sidelines, having struck out (I mix my metaphors deliberately) with the other fathers.   “Would you consider coaching the team next year, since I won’t be available? I’ll be honest, if you say no, the team will disband, for lack of a coach.”  I was the coach of last resort.   In truth, it was my kind of assignment; the expectations were impossibly low.  I could exceed them.

My parents and sister were so amused by my new role that they traveled from out of town to watch my team’s first game.  We lost horribly.  But I was determined to foster a sense of fun in the gang of athletic misfits I’d inherited, “Ice Cream for everyone!” declared the clueless coach.  Ice Cream reliably improves moods, but kids don’t like to lose so badly that they can only see a future of relentless defeat.  How to fix this?

To begin with, the team was weak, and I was befuddled.  But I learned quickly.  I outsourced skills training for the kids to an actual soccer player.  I took to heart a line I’d read somewhere about why inept adult teams beat skilled kid’s teams.  Kids see the ball; adults see the field.  I chose drills from my coach’s handbook that taught that wider angle vision, passing skills and not bunching around the ball.  Then, with an assist from the international flavor of our capitol city, I discovered the real key to coaching success.  Foreign kids.

It started when a lightning fast kid from Mexico joined the team as a center forward.  Then a Brazilian midfielder with nearly magical ball handling skills that can come only from having a soccer ball placed in your playpen.  A talented Norwegian joined the Mexican on the line.  His parents gave me my greatest and least deserved compliment as a coach.  “We love the way you coach. You always tell the kids how great they are; in Norway the coach always yelled at the kids and told them they were terrible.”  I tried to explain that it wasn’t technique, I told the kids how great they were because they really were that much better than I could ever hope to be.  I don’t think they believed me: it was o.k., I needed the love.

The same day my Norwegian soccer parents were praising me, we faced a team that warmed up with precision passing and shooting drills. It was like watching a well-practiced marching band.  By contrast, I favored chaotic looking small sided games that simulated an attempt to score in front of a goal (and to defend against that attempt). 

One of my team members, John Adams, a diplomat’s kid, told me that the kids from the other team had been pointing at me, and laughing.  Was I really their coach, they had asked him:  an overweight guy with no visible soccer skills?  I was that implausible.  I told Adams not to worry, we’d be fine.  Oh yes, it was that Adams, descendant of Presidents, with a centuries old tradition of public service in the family.  But for my purposes, what mattered was that he’d learned his soccer skills playing pickup games abroad where his father had been posted.  The meticulously drilled team with the stern authoritarian coach didn’t know what hit them. 

Fat coaches rule.

The following year wasn’t even fair.  The family Adams brought a young boy to the States from Romania, where conditions on the street had so deteriorated that the child couldn’t play safely outdoors.  He was consumed by soccer and the family asked me to get permission for him to join the team mid-season.  What followed was absurd.  I couldn’t let our new addition play for more than five minutes without it becoming apparent that he could move the ball the length of the field and score at will.  At that point I’d have to move him to the goal.  No one scored on him, but at least we didn’t run up the score in an unseemly fashion.  He was a fish out of water, but my team adored him.

Kids love to win, but there really was more to my job than admiring my foreign born and trained phenoms.  The core of the team was comprised of those kids who had failed to move up to the travel team.  How to keep them involved? At the bottom of the team’s pecking order I found a boy who reminded me of my younger self.  I’d put him on the field, and he’d dog it; he was in the game, but he’d already quit.  I reached deep into my well-stocked bag of coaching tricks and picked a winner:  I screamed.   Really, my behavior was unforgivable; I was berating my younger self for not trying.  On the surface, my team member was impervious, but it had to hurt.  Finally, I hit on an idea as novel for me as it was obvious.  I asked my player, calmly and conversationally, why he wouldn’t run when he was on field.  “I’m afraid I’ll get tired and out of breath,” he replied.  Of course, if he didn’t try, he wouldn’t be humiliated by failure and exhaustion.  We made a deal.

He agreed, he’d give his all on the field and in exchange, I’d take him out of the game and rest him whenever he raised his hand.  No blame, no judgment. There was a miraculous transformation.  He did not become a great player, but he ran, he contributed, he smiled.  A non-athlete could become an athlete, but only if challenged to compete at his own level.

But what had I really accomplished?  I rescued the remains of my son’s team, to be sure, providing an opportunity to play with kids they knew. I spared the team members from requesting spots on competing teams as the weaker members of a team that had lost its stars.  With a lot of missteps grounded in my own childhood failures, I mostly provided a kind learning environment where kids were not often berated and parents behaved on the sidelines, early explosions of temper at my young doppelganger notwithstanding.  

But this was no “Bad News Bears” Disney fairy tale where a band of misfits triumphs. I had “succeeded” largely by recreating the star system that prevailed before my arrival and that I recalled from my own childhood, welcoming, even recruiting, kids who could “help the team.”  Just as in my childhood, every kid knew where he stood.  They could cheer for the beautiful Brazilian, but they couldn’t dribble and pass like him.  And I had no coaching magic that could level the playing field.

Adults romanticize childhood.  They shouldn’t.  Children are forever measuring themselves against other children and finding themselves wanting.   If you were smart, you might have lamented your ineptitude at sports.  If you were socially adept, you might be ashamed of a harsh family life.  If your skills or interests were esoteric or not “gender appropriate,” you could expect to be teased and bullied.  If you had some exceptional talent, you could anticipate early exposure to a system of competition that would almost certainly confront you with the truth that you were not unique.  You probably envied a handful of seemingly charmed “popular” kids for whom friendship and accomplishment seemed to come without effort.  Kids that always seemed to belong. But I believe most kids face the challenge of growing up convinced that they are misfits, struggling to earn their place; I doubt this is any less true of the kids you and I envied: they envied someone else.

My failures as a childhood athlete and inadequacies as a middle aged soccer coach are far behind me.  But my experience in retirement has convinced me that there is a sport that, properly introduced, can allow each kid to compete always at his or her own level, to learn that effort will be rewarded both in the moment and in efforts at improvement over time, to meet a diverse array of friends, to learn the pleasures of teamwork, and to receive an array of benefits that will enrich and enlarge the rest of their lives.

Marc I. Machiz–Contributor
Marc spent his career as an advocate for participants in employee benefit plans, primarily by practicing law. He has three sons with his wife Jean, of 37 years and they are looking forward to welcoming their first grandchild. In semi-retirement, Marc plays tennis, advocates for immigrant rights and has founded a mediation and expert witness business, Justician Mediation, LLC.

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