Socialism on the Soccer Field

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I
am a soccer fanatic. Up until my late 20's I did very little else.
Oh sure, I made time for school, and work, and sometimes even a
date or two, but I did most of my living on the soccer field. But
even a soccer nut has to grow up, and so with bad knees, and new
responsibilities, I made room in my life for other things. I limited
my time on the field to coaching, and because I started doing that
when I was 15 I've now been coaching soccer for over a quarter of
a century.

It's
not what pays the bills. I sit at a desk all day to do that, but
coaching soccer is what I do best. I've coached at all levels, and
all ages, some girls but mostly boys. I've coached some very good
teams and some not-so-good. Over the years, I've probably coached
or helped coach 20 different teams. Some for only a season, during
a transition phase, and others for as long as 6 years.

The
teams that I remember most are those that I formed when the players
were young — generally about age 7. I would coach them for several
years, until I'd start to see my effectiveness lessen. I would then
turn them over to someone else more experienced at coaching the
older kids. But I would remain a fan of my old team(s) and would
follow their progress. Inevitably, the team would start to go downhill.
Sometimes rapidly.

A
few well-meaning people would ask if that made me feel good — that
it was my coaching that was the difference in the win/loss record
of the team. But nothing could be further from the truth. It's like
asking the parent, whose child was a straight-A student through
high school, if they're proud their son waited until he moved away
to become the heavy drinker and all around ne'er-do-well he became
in his 20s (and no, I'm not trying to equate losing a few soccer
games to alcoholism, but you get the picture). Because that's how
I think of most of my "kids." I'm their soccer parent,
and the last thing I'd ever want to see is for them to fall apart
after we part ways.

So,
over the years, I often wondered why my teams would inevitably go
downhill. I thought I had considered all the angles, but it wasn't
until recently that I began to truly understand.

Like
most coaches, I have my own style. A plan, a system of doing things
that I felt would work best for me and for the children I coach.
I developed this style over the years, making changes and refining
it with each new team until I finally felt I had something that
would allow me to be the type of coach I wanted to be, while still
doing what I thought was best for the children.

My
rules were pretty simple. You're on my team, you play. No one is
better than anyone else, and everyone is expected to do the best
they can at all times. The parents were welcome to speak to me in
private but I made it clear I didn't want any public dissension.
Positive words only. We will win, or lose, as a team. Scoring goals
is nice but we want to make sure we get as much, if not more, praise
for the unsung heroes of defense.

Does
any of this seem familiar? As it turns out, I had developed quite
a system of socialism on my teams. There were very few rewards for
putting in extra effort or for having some talent that other kids
didn't have. Playing time was essentially equal. There was no extra
praise for scoring goals, something notoriously difficult to do
in soccer. No disagreements allowed. Abide by my rules or leave.

The
problem is that it works, at least for a while. The kids, and the
parents, are all happy with the victories. A collective peace exists,
and everyone gets along fabulously. But eventually, as with all
socialism, the peace starts to erode. The team may start to lose
a few games, and the grumbling would start on the sidelines.

As
this happened, I would begin to think it was time for a change —
I had been coaching these kids long enough and a fresh face was
needed. And because I prefer to coach the littlest kids, I would
happily turn the team over, but as it turns out the damage had already
been done.

The
majority of the kids and their parents would, at first, remain happy
with the team. Their behavior wouldn't change. But soon, the parents
of the more skilled players would start looking around for different
teams — teams where their child's skills, work ethic, and passion
for the game would flourish. Where he could play with other boys
of similar abilities, where everyone works very hard and is rewarded
for that hard work.

The
remaining members of the original team would look about and realize
they no longer had the superstars to carry them, and would do one
of two things. They either left for new teams, or they resigned
themselves to simply showing up and doing the minimum to continue
to play soccer on a travel team. And no matter how hard the new
coach worked, he would find it almost impossible to change the behavior
that I had so strongly, albeit unknowingly, encouraged for the past
several years. Just show up, and let everyone else do the work.

As
a new Libertarian, I'm constantly learning new lessons. But it never
occurred to me that it would extend even to my coaching. It's a
hard lesson to learn, but at the same time, it's been fascinating
to figure it out.

In
a few weeks, the team I've coached for the past five years will
head down to Florida for a tournament. It will be my farewell to
the team, and I will start over in the fall with a new group. And
I will try to figure out how the lesson I've learned will change
what I do.

I'm
not willing to employ a cut-throat style — some variation of survival
of the fittest – in my coaching. They're just little kids. But it
does help me to realize I should think even more about the long-term
as well as the short-term. I need to find a way to reward the overachiever
while not punishing those who try hard but lack some basic abilities.
Those who don't try should be encouraged to find some other activity
in which they may be able to excel — for I have discovered it is
very difficult to be successful in anything for which you have little
passion.

I
don't have the answers yet. But at least knowing the problem will
make it that much easier to figure them out.

June
19, 2003

Allison
Brown [send her mail] is
a financial officer in Maryland.


     

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