Thursday, October 31, 2013

Earning It

About this time every high school soccer season, I'd begin thinking about the awards that we coaches would give our players at our season ending get-together.

I had a tradition that, every other season, I would find a toy, token, or object that fit each player and her abilities, attitudes, or interests. Sometimes they would be obvious, sometimes not. They were always meant to be fun, even if they were occasionally a little ambiguously mean.

The superstitious player who wouldn't abandon her soccer boots at the end of the season, choosing to use duck tape on them instead, received a big roll of tape for the next year. The elegant winger who ran like a colt and cursed like a sailor was given a Princess Leia doll with a tiny bar of soap in her mouth. The player who consistently "forgot" to bring her running shoes to practice got another pair of her very own for the next season.

I sometimes wonder if any of them have kept those knickknacks, which weren't huge and gaudy like the dozens I'm sure they had been handed at the end of every soccer, basketball, and softball league in which they had participated when they were younger.

Ever since our son, E, first brought home a "participation trophy" from soccer when he was four years old, I have been opposed to youth leagues that award them. Trophies should be won, not handed out like Halloween treats. When an athlete, at any age, earns a trophy, she does so knowing that her team excelled -- or at least was better than most -- not just for showing up.

Fortunately, E got it at an early age. As competitive as he was, it didn't take long for him to realize that trophies won were much more valuable than those provided for participation. And I never gave the participation trophies much more thought.

Others, however, have given them great consideration, and have concluded that we may well have poisoned a whole generation into thinking that they are entitled to anything and everything, including a trophy for mere attendance.  In a recent op ed piece in the New York Times, the author cites psychologists and psychological studies that conclude that participation trophies are counterproductive. "Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, found that kids respond positively to praise; they enjoy hearing that they’re talented, smart and so on. But after such praise of their innate abilities, they collapse at the first experience of difficulty. Demoralized by their failure, they say they’d rather cheat than risk failing again."

I think it's a little too easy to blame the awards themselves to any great extent, but perfectly legitimate to blame what they represent: a generation of parents (yes, you baby boomers) that failed to discipline their children when they misbehaved and failed completely at the honest, objective analysis of their children's abilities and the understanding of the value that sports and teamwork can impart, even in the absence of athletic skill.

As you might imagine, there are many stories that I could tell about dealing with unrealistic or misguided parents advocating for their children (often to the child's horror) with regard to athletics. But to do so at this point would be both futile and equally selfish on my part.

While the author of The Times article starts her article with the premise that if the youth league your child is joining hands out participation trophies you should "find another program", that's easier to do in New York City than Charleston, West Virginia. And, in some ways, it's just a further abdication of a parent's responsibilities. Isn't it more of a teaching moment, when their kid brings home that first shiny trophy that is the same as one that every other child received, for the adults to point that out, that, while participation is fine, excellence is better?

They will get it. E certainly did. While he lives in Richmond now, his room at home is still stuffed with various reminders of his athletic achievements: a state track relay championship medal, plaques from state tennis championships, a first-team all-state soccer plaque, even trophies from basketball and soccer tournaments won ten or more years ago. But those participation trophies? He banished them to the attic long ago.

Participation trophies - where they belong.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Ascendancy It Is

I kept telling myself "it was only a friendly. It was only a friendly."

On two occasions this summer, after the U.S. Men's soccer team's big win over Germany and its shocking come-from-behind triumph over Bosnia-Herzegovina, I reminded myself of just that. After all, in the midst of UEFA qualifying, those countries may have treated the games as warm-ups, an opportunity to allow their reserve squad players a taste of international action.

But the mere fact that the Americans won both matches, in which they likely would have collapsed two years ago, or even earlier this year (remember the game against Belgium a week before the one against Germany?) made me think that something big was brewing with the national team.

Back in January, I wrote about how this was a cross-roads year for both the U.S. Men's and Women's National teams, as well as women's professional soccer in the U.S. Feast or famine; make or break. A year of ascendancy or disaster? is the way I put it.

While the Woman's national team has done just fine under new coach Tom Sermanni, and the jury is still very much out with regard to the new women's league, the answer for the Men's team is clear: ascendancy it is.

The improvement shown against two of the best squads in Europe in the friendlies was borne out in the remaining matches of CONCACAF qualifying as the Americans, after a serious misstep in Costa Rica (which was clearly the second best team in this Hex), steamrolled Mexico and Jamaica and then stunned poor Panama, on the cusp of kicking Mexico to the qualifying curb, with two extra time goals in the final qualifying match.

Graham Zusi celebrates his game tying goal in Panama, the dagger
to the heart of its qualifying hopes. (photo from

While some pundits wondered post-match about the wisdom of pursuing an in-game strategy that kept Mexican hopes alive in the World Cup (with their loss to Costa Rica in the final match and what seemed like a imminent win by Panama over the U.S. Panama would have traveled to New Zealand and back for a playoff and Mexico would have been sent home to lick its considerable psychological and monetary wounds), I'm glad that the team and Coach Jurgen Klinsmann saw fit to play hard and go for a win in their last competitive match before next summer's World Cup.

And least we forget, while Klinsmann is now being hailed as a savant and savior, it wasn't too long ago that his leadership and tactics were being seriously questioned. But first with those friendlies, then with the wins over Mexico and Panama, Klinsmann has show a deft touch with substitutions and the ability to get the most out of his players, especially those that he does not put in the starting 11.

Klinsmann's leadership strengths discredit the idea that the U.S. should have "thrown" the Panama game. That thought is completely contrary to the way that Klinsmann is going about the job of building a different soccer psyche in this country, and that is not the lesson that he would have wanted his players in Panama City to take away from that match.

Instead, the Americans flew back to the U.S. full of confidence, convinced that they can win any match, at any time, with any 11 players on the pitch.  Whether that will bear out depends a lot on what countries it draws into its group in the World Cup (and it might get ugly)(you could waste hours keeping track of all the possible permutations using the draw simulator here). Nonetheless, that confidence will be there when they step on the pitch, somewhere in Brazil against an unknown opponent in June 2014. I can't wait. And I don't think they can either.