I was deeply saddened recently upon reading a Facebook friend’s post recounting the hurt caused to her family when her daughter failed to make a softball team. It reminded me of the time that one of my sons was not invited to participate on a sort of post-season, 6th grade basketball tournament team. I’ll never forget the defeated look on his face when he came out of that locker room having been told that he wasn’t good enough. He was devastated as were his mother and me. Sixth grade. To this day, trying to convince him in that moment to keep his head up and to accept that life is rarely fair remains one of the toughest conversations I’ve ever had to have with him. He had loved playing basketball. That little boy’s spirit was absolutely crushed by adults who’d decided that winning was more important than nurturing kids’ talents and teaching the love of competition – in the sixth grade – and should have known better. After that, he continued to play basketball halfheartedly for another year or so before completely giving up. I understand that there comes an age when children need to hear the truth about their limitations as athletes and students, and that they need to learn that life is full disappointments, and that, as Mick Jagger rightly crowed, “You can’t always get what you want.” But the sixth grade?
Only once in my twenty years of coaching did I ever cut a player. I only did it on that occasion because I’d been more-or-less directed to keep the squad to a certain number based upon uniform availability. Afterward I swore to myself that I would never do it again. If a kid wanted to be on the team and practice despite the unlikelihood of receiving much playing time, I would let him. Similarly, whenever I reflect on my coaching career, my biggest regret has nothing to do with losing games – and, trust me, I lost more than my share – but with not finding enough playing time for too many of my players who had worked just as hard at practice as the starters. I should have tried much harder to get kids on the field on game nights. I still lose sleep about it, and I am often ashamed when I run into those kids, who are now adults, and realize of what I robbed them and their parents because I was so concerned with winning.
In the classroom, I think long and hard before placing an “F” on a student’s grade report. In fact, over the past twenty years, I can count on one finger the number of students I’ve failed for the year, and he had to work hard to convince me that he deserved it. In fact, he had to more-or-less talk me into failing him. I will explore every alternative to giving a student an “F” on a grade report. “F” stands for failure, and I just don’t believe many kids are absolute failures, and I do not want to be the adult who labels one as such, for what happens when and if s/he believes me?
Tell me I’m a part of this namby-pamby participation trophy generation of adults. Call me a snowflake. Accuse me of being a bleeding-heart liberal. Accuse me of contributing to the wussification of America. I’ll say thank you. Based on the adult generations of Americans I see, I’m not so sure the “hard-ass,” “suck-it-up,” “quit-your-crying,” “winning is everything” philosophy of previous generations did such a great job of forming well-adjusted adults out of the children for whom they were responsible.
Looking back, I learned more from the teachers, coaches, and adults in general who respected me and showed me kindness and patience and compassion than I ever did from those I feared and who were hell bent on “making a man” out of me – whatever the hell that means. We need to find a way of teaching the love of sports and learning and music for their sakes alone, not because there will be winners and honors declared at the end. Call me a communist if that actually makes any sense and it makes you feel better about yourself, but I’ll believe we’ve become an enlightened society when we no longer have a need for cutting kids, scoreboards, and grade cards.
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