A recent Facebook post by a fellow parent made me piping hot mama bear mad. The person declared that she was “feeling proud” to be celebrating her child’s travel soccer team’s 13-0 victory that weekend and it went on to say that the game was “never a contest” and ended with “way to go!” The kids are in the Under-10 age group.
I sincerely like the woman who wrote it and I feel really uncomfortable about sort of calling her out by writing this and possibly having it get back to her. But having been on the giving and receiving side of this treatment as a player, a coach and now a parent, as well as watching it play out as a licensed USSF referee, I couldn’t get it out of my head, so I decided to speak up.
Is this more namby-pamby nonsense from the people who bring you “participation trophies” and “everybody wins”? Heck, no!
First, some definitions so we’re all on the same page: I’ll define a blow-out in soccer terms since I know that best, but I’m sure there are equivalent numbers that you can divine for baseball, football, basketball, volleyball, hockey, etc. I emphatically believe that once you hit a 5-goal differential in a youth soccer game, well-coached teams should take subtle but meaningful steps to make it harder for their own kids to score (more on how below). I think that this is the honorable thing to do in all sports for kids under 16 years old, except in rare circumstances (such as unfortunately constructed tournaments where unconstrained goal differential decides rankings).
Is this more namby-pamby nonsense from the people who bring you “participation trophies” and “everybody wins”? Heck, no! I happen to be one of the most competitive people I know. I believe one of the important things kids (and adults) learn through sports is the whole “sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains” mentality. Life has winners and losers and kids do need to learn that.
But if you’re whooping a bunch of 9-year olds 13-0, what are you learning and what are you teaching? That total domination over others is a good thing? That your needs are more important than everyone else’s? That you are the best and they suck?
Here’s the thing, when you win 5-0 or 6-1, you definitively and confidently won. It is unlikely that there were many nail-biting moments, but there is still an opportunity to reflect on how you can improve. If you won by that margin and you know you and your teammates thoughtfully and intentionally took your foot off the gas, you can add empathy, compassion, and sportsmanship to the list of skills you developed in that game. When you lose 5-0 or 6-1, you definitively lost. You know you have more work to do, you will certainly have mistakes to discuss and strategies to refine, but you generally go home with your head up, ready and willing to put forth a great effort the next time.
When you lose 13-0, you feel dejected. You feel lame, pathetic and sad. When kids lose 13-0, it’s hard for them to think about what the could do better next time. In my experience, when kids lose by big margins, they actually don’t like to think or talk about the game at all afterwards. And if it happens often enough, kids lose their love for the game. On the flip side, when you win 13-0, you can get overconfident, you might not even see any need for thinking about what you can improve or do better. And you definitely are not developing empathy, compassion or true sportsmanship.
Nick Mulvaney, Founder and Executive Director of Chicago City Soccer Club and USSF A Licensed coach, adds that parents and kids need to “understand that the game is bigger than the result. We want kids to love playing the game and if they get beat so bad by a team, it can really hurt their love for the game and we start to lose kids playing soccer. That is a sad reality.”
Jugl Co-Founder and Naperville Youth Soccer Coach, Pete Jameson, agrees: “There’s never a reason to run up the score. No one walks away from a game like that feeling good. The lessons kids learn in youth sports are carried with them throughout their lives. Rather than run up the score, a team that practices restraint honors good sportsmanship and makes a lasting impact on players from both sides.”
Here are some of my favorite strategies. It’s telling to note that decades later I vividly remember being taught to do this when my team was beginning to blow out another team (and I, in turn, teach the girls I coach to do the same):
All players must pass and shoot with their non-dominant foot only (this one is my absolute favorite – a total win/win as even really talented youth players can be quite hesitant to use their non-dominant foot in competitive situations)
Requiring three passes before any shot on goal
Position swaps (especially between goalkeepers and forwards)
Being stealth (i.e., NOT saying any of these rules loud enough for the other team to hear and know what we are up to)
Mulvaney added the following ideas from his considerable arsenal:
Allow the opposition in their own half to get success moving up the field
Once possession is gained, must go back to the goalkeeper before attacking
Can only score from crosses
1 touch finishes only
Take a player off
Every player must touch the ball before you attack
He emphasizes that the idea behind all these conditions and restraints is to focus on areas of the game the team and players can improve on, not just to create obstacles to running up the score.
So, I’ll get off my soapbox now and ask you, fellow Jugl’ers. Do you think blow-outs in youth sports are OK? If yes, tell us why (we’re open-minded, we swear). If you are anti-blow-outs, we’d love to hear your best tips for how to manage these situations (in soccer and whatever other sports you’re passionate about). We can’t wait to benefit from the communal wisdom! Thanks in advance for sharing.