The Mixed Message of Kids’ Sports

It was a gray rainy Sunday, not too cold, and my son’s soccer team was about to play its first game, finally, after rain-outs and blizzardy April weather. The day prior had been beautiful with the promise of spring on the air and bright sunshine all-around.

Still, we came out in a steady rainfall, hoods up, hats on, layered and eager to hit the ground running. The kids frankly loved the mud splattering on their faces and legs. I didn’t mind it. Part of the fun of life is letting go and getting messy.

It was our first game of the season. All but two players had played before. And yet, I noticed the kids hanging back when an opponent had the ball. “Don’t wait,” I called out from the sidelines. “Get in there. Take the ball from them.”

We won 3-2 and it was a game well-played. The kids’ only complaint was that they didn’t have enough time on the field. My sweet Shaya whimpered when he learned he wouldn’t rotate in again. It’s a good problem to have so much fun, you just want to keep playing.

My players are talented and fast. They’re hearty, hale, healthy. They love the game, love chasing the ball, love kicking, love seeing what transpires in the journey up and down the field.

And still, they stay back when an opponent gets his cleat, or hands, on the ball. It occurred to me that for their entire young lives, we’ve been chastising them when they steal the ball from another kid. “Play nice,” we teach our little ones. “Share.”

These kids are nice kids. They’ve been told for seven years that a nice kid doesn’t take the ball from someone else. But they don’t stop being nice kids if they play a game aggressively. We need to be able to teach our children – and ourselves – that it’s nothing personal, it’s just a game.

They start into sports and we don’t quite want them to stop playing nice – we want to encourage compassion and humanity on the field and off – but we all of a sudden start teaching them to take the ball from another player. How can that message be received?

Our parenting – and really, our lives – is full of contradictions. It’s no wonder people are confused. And it’s the same exact thing in business.

I’ve lost count of how many times someone I know has taken something at work personally. If you don’t do a job well or see it to completion, you screwed up. Doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. Doesn’t mean you’re unlikable. There’s no need for tears.

And the same goes with soccer: take the ball, but that doesn’t mean you’re a bully and it doesn’t mean you don’t like Sally-on-the-other-team. It just means you’re playing the game.

Off the field, you can be best friends. On the field,  your goal is to score, to play well, to anticipate and think and strategize. Off the field, it’s kick-up-your-feet-and-sip-a-juicebox time. Very different.

How do we walk this tightrope of instruction? I remember a lesson from a wonderful Indian guru, Swami A. Parthasarathy, who writes and lectures about the lessons of Vedanta, one of the world’s oldest, wisest philosophies.

Swamiji says to use your intellect, not be driven by emotion, in every situation. Do the work in front of you. To love means to relate to another being, to feel what they feel. It’s not preferential attachment.

There is no hurt in the statement that you did not play right or do the job to completion. It is a fact, a guidance offered in love and understanding, and one we need to embody.

When a child hears an absolute: “Don’t take the ball from Susie.” And then another absolute: “Don’t wait, don’t hold back, get in there, take the ball from Susie.” It must be utterly confusing.

What if we taught our children from early on to have compassion and understanding for every living creature and as they grow older, taught them the nuances of sometimes the ball gets taken and it’s really ok and nobody did anything wrong to you.

Would it be the worst thing in the world if a child were taught at an early age that if someone else has the ball and they don’t, it’s no great tragedy? Let the other person enjoy the ball. Use your imagination to do something wonderful. Live and let live. It has nothing to do with you.

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