The Burbank Purple Tigers were doomed from the start. We were the leftovers of the Under-6 AYSO, known in the world of toddler athletics as the American Youth Soccer Organization and, more familiarly to parents, as All Your Saturdays Occupied. We were the crew that came late to the party to find that all team rosters were full and our only option was to start our own team which, against our better judgment, we did. Michael, Z’s godfather, volunteered to coach, uniforms were issued, shin guards were donned and our motley crew of misfits took the field. One look at this spasmodic gaggle of five year olds in purple jerseys, running the wrong way down the field while stealing the ball from one another and I knew it was going to be a very long season indeed.
Still, this was something that Z very much wanted to do and I truly believed that being part of a team sport would be a great exercise in cooperation and self-esteem building. Thanks to his mother and me, Z is too short for basketball and too smart for football. I hoped that in addition to a suave way with the ladies and a penchant for financial mismanagement, Z’s Italian heritage might just offer him mad soccer skillz.
The first challenge was getting the kids to actually participate in the game without their attention wandering. At any given time, one member of the team could usually be found leing down on the field making “grass angles” while another pulled his jersey over his face and played an impromptu game of “where’s my head!?” Z, though always fixated on the action of the game, had his own issue with contributing to the meager goal tally. He developed what I call a “tactical retreat”. After repeatedly watching opposing teams fire shots into the goal, Z adopted a kind of extreme preemptive defensive mind set. Any time a player from the other team touched the ball, Z would race to cover the goal and prevent disaster. This would sometimes involve needlessly sprinting the entire length of the field while play continued down near the opposite goal. My repeated yells of, “Buddy! Go after the ball!!” were met with a shake of the head and a disbelieving look that said “Haven’t you seen what happens when we leave this thing unattended?”
There was, in fact, a lot of yelling from the sidelines. Mostly, of course, it was positive reinforcement and encouragement, mixed with regular reminders of which direction the Purple Tigers were meant to be kicking the ball. As loss after loss piled up, my main mantra became, “it doesn’t matter if you win, the important thing is to have a good time.” I didn’t entirely buy this logic but I knew it to be the kind of thing an enlightened father should be heard saying so, flimsy as the idea was, I tried to embrace it.
Z took the losses personally. At some point, right about the time we had lost our sixth straight game, he came huffing off the field, red faced and angry at the world. He looked up at me and declared “We’re the worst team ever!” I knelt down next to him and tried to weave my progressive parenting magic, “Buddy, the important thing is to go out there and have fun.” His big eyes puffed with tears, “I’m trying! But losing isn’t fun!”
He was right and I knew it. Losing sucks.
And it’s not because either of us has an ego to fertilize or that we fail to appreciate the simple joy of kicking the ball with friends. It’s because we have 35,000 years of hardwiring that tells us that victory is vastly superior to defeat. Succeeding in competition – for everything from shelter to territory to food to the right to spread your DNA – has been a life or death matter since the species began. The fact that we exist at all tells us that our ancestors were at least slightly above average in the “winning” department.
And while winning is rarely life and death in modern society, telling Z that losing shouldn’t sting a little or diminishing his natural desire to succeed was dishonest and, in the long run, a disservice. The kid is going to spend much of his young life in win/lose situations; competing for everything from a role in the middle school play to girls to admission to college. His success in life will depend, to a large degree, on his ability to compete and a desire to excel.
So why am I communicating to him that his frustration with losing is inappropriate or that wanting to win is, somehow, taboo?
The mistake I was making –the one made so often in the age of solicitous, helicopter parenting –is that I was losing track of precisely what lesson I was trying to teach. Parents tend to be serial over-correctors. In an effort to insure that we don’t go all Bobby Knight on our kids, we try to sell them on the idea that losing is just as fun as winning when we know (most of us anyway) that it isn’t. The real lesson is more nuanced and elusive and, therefore, much harder to communicate. Instead of teaching kids that deriving happiness from success is bad, we should really be teaching them that empathy must never be casualty competitiveness and that victory in the absence of sportsmanship is, in fact, the worst kind of loss. This is, no doubt, a complex set of values that will take time to instill. But if our goal is decent, confident, ambitious, children then it’s worth taking the time to get it right.
Sadly, by the end of the season, I had mostly gotten it wrong. As we piled into the car after the last game, a thorough rout that brought our season record to a near perfect 0-9-2, I feared that my experiment in youth soccer might have soured Z on team sports all together. There’s something unfairly punishing for a five year old about spending eleven weeks on the field and not once walking away with a win. There’s no doubt that my little guy can be a sullen, melodramatic mess at times but, in this case, I let him rant and rail against the injustice of it all without trying to talk him down. Once he’d vented his indignation I tried to cheer him up and move us on to a new topic.
“Well, next week we have Saturday totally free so whatever you want to do for fun, we can go and do it.”
Z thought about this enticing, open ended offer for a long moment and then said,
“I want to spend next Saturday practicing soccer, so next year we can win.”