Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Running Up The Score - Limping Home

I have had this series running through my head for a week, and while there is certainly a lot more to cover and its various facets interest me, it's not that fascinating. It bids fair to dominate another week, and it's just too much. So I will simply list additional points without expanding them into a full argument and have done with it.

In the comments at First Things, I see in retrospect that once the stage was set, a lot of people - perhaps all of us - engaged in fantasies about how kids were affected, devoid of any data. People asserted that kids could and would learn important lessons from the experience of losing 108-3, so it was okay. Others stated that kids would be humiliated and devastated, so it should never happen. Numbers, please? Data? How many are inspired to try harder, how many are damaged? Do we know, are are we just projecting adult ideas onto their heads.

Retrospective anecdotes are not evidence. One (young?) man recalled playing at 16 for a team that got beaten badly and told us how it had changed his approach and all worked out. I mistrust this. Anyone who has ever recalled events with others knows that forgotten information has to be worked in. No, Jeremy, you actually started that extra practicing at 14 after losing a much closer game, though it was intermittent. That game you lost, one star player got into early foul trouble and the other was injured. You did work harder for a few months, but the big difference was that the next year you had a better coach. Or oppositely, No, you were moody and tough to coach the rest of the season. The next year you seemed to get your feet under you, but still lost your temper a lot. The year after that you were the hardest-working, never-say-die kid I coached in years. If it was that game that taught you that lesson, it took a long time. Not to say that the other person's memory is correct, either. But memory puts things into neater packages than were apparent at the time.

Also, anecdotes are about you. Even if you did learn to be a great competitor, what about the four younger kids who quit the game after that season? If we want sports to teach social darwinism, that those kids got weeded out because they weren't mentally tough enough, how are we fitting that into a specifically Christian context?

The conflict in the Church since the age of Constantine arises in miniature form when Christians open (or even teach at) schools, or coach teams - or on into adulthood, become bosses and supervisors, or get elected selectman, or assume any earthly power whatsoever. When you take on the job of training children to take a place in society, you have a responsibility to the society as well as the child. We entrusted you with these children so that they could function in this society. If they are not able to compete, you have failed us all. But some training must be harsh, and some will be damaged. It is no good to say "well, they shouldn't feel that way." Some will. To just write them off as wusses that couldn't cut it, while pointing to the successful individuals, stern of will, doesn't answer. And some will be unable. The coach or the school or the parent may not be at primary fault, but I think that the Christian perspective is to aim for no fault at all. Even quitters and whiners are children of God. And frankly, many who appear to be quitters or whiners really aren't, but only thrust into situations beyond their years. If we are going to be the occasion for some to fail, we should at minimum have a clear idea what is a generally bearable amount of pressure.

And yet, to be rescuing of the least of these, or forgiving of society's enemies when one is in power is to make one's whole people vulnerable. Tribes get wiped out that way. If it's your job to see that the tribe doesn't get wiped out, then you shouldn't take the position if you can't fulfill it. Similarly, on a lesser scale, with school principals, chorus directors, and (gulp) drama coaches.

OTOH, one's team losing by an horrendous margin may not be the humiliation for a child that adults think it is. Kids are usually much more embarrassed by their personal failures in front of the crowd, not the team's. And they pick up on what adults think they should be embarrassed by. Commenting on what a jerk that Adrian Beltre is for making an error and costing his team the game is likely to come to mind when your own little third baseman makes an error that costs his team the game, even if you say only encouraging you'll-get-'em-next-time-big-guy comments. And the groans of the crowd as a game slips away says it all: this really was important to the adults. That the adult puts it in perspective a minute later may be lost on the child.

I guess this is the spot to put in whatever else occurs to you on the topic.


terri said...

It's been an interesting series. I went over to the First Things post when you originally linked to it, because I wasn't sure what you meant by "running up the score".

I soon realized what the discussion was about.

As far as Joe Carter's original post, I think the whole discussion was a little over-played. Is there a specifically "Christian" way to play sports, or coach teams, or teach children?

I'm not sure that there is.

Most of the principles that people would admire in good coaches, and good sportsmanship are not specifically "christian" I think the conversation falters in that area, because there is no one way to be a "christian" team. Any number of things could be emphasized, kindness, hard work, doing your best....although those aren't specifically "christian" values either. To play devil's advocate, one could argue that trying to win or caring about being the best is anti-christian in the sense that people are looking for glory and praise for themselves.

I think giving up the idea that a team of Christians should be following different rules simply because they are Christian would help the situation....and that goes not only for the players and coach, but for those who criticize them, expecting them to somehow be "different" in some indefinable way.

Different how? If the league really was concerned about such a huge point difference, then there should be rules to address the problem. Would a non-Christian team have been criticized in the same manner if roles were reversed?

Part of me thinks not...Because other people expect more of Christians in these situations, while simultaneously not attempting to live by the standard they want to apply.

If a group thinks there is a higher, better way to play sports, then why aren't they trying to incorporate that into the general rules?

As much as I criticize evangelicals, I think they're not getting a fair shake in a situation like this. There didn't seem to be any sense that the team was being particularly obnoxious, or trying to humiliate the other team. I'm sure with hindsight they might have done things differently, but in the middle of the game, with parents and an audience watching, and trying to take into account what decision would be psychologically less humiliating for the losing team...what could they have done?

I have one more related comment.

terri said...

Having the boys in soccer has been very relevant to my interest in this series.

The Rationalist is on a Under-12 team that is undefeated. His team has a really good coach, but they also started off with most players having a lot of soccer experience. Even though The Rationalist is not nearly as skilled as they are, he has been able to enjoy being part of a "winning" team. He has learned a lot, and has improved and was even able to to score a goal in one game....mainly be being in the right place at the right time, and just barely bumping it past the goal line....but it still counts and I was immensely happy that he had a chance to feel what it's like to score for his team.

Still, his experience has largely been determined by the luck of being put on a team that has several good players on it.

The Intuitive, on the other hand, is on the other end of the spectrum. His team has only won one game and the players have had a very slow improvement curve. Every week they play better, but they still don't win. They started off with a team of almost exclusively first-time players. As a result, they are outmatched, simply by the luck of the draw.

They were very discouraged the first couple of games, and the parents and coaches didn't exactly help. Their desire to see the team "win", just so they wouldn't feel bad about the soccer experience has sometimes gone awry. I've heard parents talking about their kids lack of ability and motivation while the kid just stands there listening to their parent basically putting them down in front of everybody.

There is a fine line that has to be walked between being tough enough to motivate kids, and not let their whining get in the way of their own success, and also encouraging them and giving them the confidence they need to not give up.

I feel that pull in myself. It's not easy to watch your kids and want them to succeed and still stay detached enough to think clearly about what you say and do. I have spent time talking to The Intuitive about being a better goalie and telling him that he is the last man able to stop the opposing team from scoring. I have practiced teaching him how to get to the ball faster, and not to be passive, but to go after the ball as soon as it's within his reach.

I care about him doing his best, and getting better. Maybe I shouldn't. Maybe we parents are more like Amy Chua than we would like to admit.

The next game he seemed to have "gotten" it and made several great saves, but his team still lost.

On the other hand, he was proud of the blocks he was able to make, even in the face of losing.

I think that sports can provide valuable lessons, as can any activity that requires work, practice, and learning an instrument.

However, the lesson doesn't come from the activity, but from the adults supervising it. Bad adult supervision=terrible experience. Good adult supervision=positive experience.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Many goals in soccer are the result of being in the right place at the right time and getting "lucky." Except when you realise that, and work on being in good places and ready to react, it isn't really luck, is it? So your son's goal was an entirely normal one.

Ben was on a Christian school team that regularly got beaten by horrendous scores, the worst being 104-6 or something. They often had only six players. Ben was a 7th-grade 5'2" power forward guarding an 8th-grade 8'2" power forward in another game. They never should have been in that league, so that was the adults' fault. But there aren't that many leagues, and if you want your school to play, you often have to take what's there. I suppose there are Christian lessons to be learned from that. Not sure that 13 is the time to learn them.

Both boys were on teams that never won and teams that were champions. I think the coaches created more of the damage or benefit than the score.


Gringo said...

IMHO, running up the score is a consequence of adults running kids' sports. Running up the score is a consequence of greater variation in the ability of respective teams. There will be greater variation in the ability of the teams when adults are running things,for at least two reasons. First, the teams are more fixed in composition. If you have a bunch of first year players of elementary school age, you may not even things out by importing a high school age ringer. Second, the ability of the adults to coach and motivate varies.

When kids play a sport informally among themselves, with the teams chosen on an impromptu basis each time they assemble to play, there will be a tendency for the teams to be more evenly matched. Two captains, who are usually the best players, alternating choices. It evens out.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Good point. When kid's scores get out of hand they reconfigure the teams on their own. They want it to be relatively even.

karrde said...

I'm still interested in the topic, but I must confess that I am not much of a sports fan. (I was invited over to a friend's house today. Something about the Soup Bowl, last of the football Bowl games of the season? I can't remember.)

I do agree with Gringo, if the kids run the game themselves, they like to weight things evenly.

Even when a bunch of grown men (and a one or two of the ladies) from my church play soccer, they try to split the big talent evenly, and then split the medium talent evenly, then find places for the rest.

Gringo said...

I played soccer once a week when I was in college. The last year, I and another guy- both of middling ability- were always the captains to pick teams. The two best players for captains practice didn't work because in our group there was one player who was head and shoulders above us all- even if he was actually about 5'6". He was a goal scorer who had been a goalie in high school.

While I didn't trumpet it, I was proud of my undefeated record as captain that year- some ties. Even if I didn't pick first and got the best player, I chose the players who best played as members of a team, not as freelancers.