Teaching Our Children How To Lose: Lessons in Grace

The lessons learned on the field often find their way into all aspects of our kids’ lives.

I recently watched a heartwarming video exemplifying true sportsmanship. Considering these were just young boys – U-12 (under 12) – it was truly a remarkable sight to see the victorious Barca’s “Infantil B” team, having just won the World Challenge Cup final, embrace and offer comfort to their defeated and heartbroken opponents in the midst of celebrating their win.

Our son, Dylan, was 7 when he joined Pioneer Little League Baseball.

We arrived at sign-ups early Saturday morning along with the other enthusiastic soon-to-be baseball players and Dylan immediately ran to his friends to inquire which team they were going to try out for. The parents were in huddled masses debating coaching styles and personalities, and one name kept surfacing as “the man you do NOT want coaching your child.”

“He is so strict! He makes those kids practice until it’s dark outside.” I left one huddle and wriggled my way into another. “He yells at the boys!” one concerned mom quipped. “Oh I know,” another agreed, “I have a friend whose son played on his team, but they switched him to another team after one practice.”

I searched the grounds for my husband only to find he had experienced the same concerns from many of the fathers there. “Man, I want to find out who this guy is,” my husband blurted enthusiastically. “Why?” I asked, “He sounds like a maniac. I don’t want Dylan to be afraid of his coach, especially his first year.” We were snapped out of our deliberation by a man with a very authoritative, loud, and raspy voice insisting parents and boys come forward for instructions.

A hush fell over the adults, and I knew by the looks of concern and whispering that this man was indeed the dreaded coach, the one to be avoided at all costs. He was all business, a bit intimidating, but there was something about him my husband and I instantly related to: he was a winner. As parents, want to see our children excel at what they do, and in sports, ideally, we want to see them win.

He instructed the parents to take their boys to a specific coach if they had a preference and if not, to wait and we’d be called in turn. Several coaches, donning red shirts, stood nearby.

We went directly to the “mean” coach – Coach Bill – which really wasn’t a group yet at all. Only a few parents had wandered over, but my husband and I were intrigued, and wanted to hear his philosophy. Our son was ambivalent, but excited to be there.

We listened closely to what he said. He spoke of teamwork, dedication, love of the game, perseverance, hard work, sacrifice. He didn’t mention the word “winning” until he said, “We’ll win, of that you can be sure. But, winning isn’t what the game is about, and that’s what I’m going to teach your boys.”

He continued, “It’s easy to win, easy to be a victor. It’s also easy to believe that winning makes you better than everyone else and while it’s true, you may have been better that day, that game, we are never assured a win. It’s important for kids to learn how to win and more important for them to learn how to lose. And that’s what I’ll teach your boys. I have a reputation, I’m sure you’ve heard. It’s all true. I will work these boys hard every practice, that’s how you learn the game. And they’ll be great at it. But mostly they’ll learn the grace in winning and losing, and that both have their place in baseball, and in life.”

The few losses the Rockies had were great folly for other teams, the boys on it, and particularly their parents. At the end of each game, when the boys lined up to pass one another in single file and exchange a heartfelt, “Good game!” as is the custom, the victors of the other teams were snarky, prideful, and uttered insults as they passed by. It was sad to see – particularly to watch the parents encouraging this behavior.

When this happened the first time, our boys were angry. They had plans to retaliate in kind when they won, to treat the losers the same way, to give them a taste of their own medicine. When Bill overheard their plans he called them all back into the clubhouse and sat them down.

“You will NEVER, and I mean never, act disrespectfully to another team, another boy, by pulling the same shenanigans they do. You are Rockies. You will say ‘congratulations’ or ‘good game’ when you pass by – win or lose – nothing more, nothing less, or you will no longer be on this team.”

“But coach, that’s not fair! They made fun of us when we lost. We shouldn’t have to listen to their crap!” the boys clamored.

“Did you hear what you just said, boys? Their ‘crap.’ And that is exactly what it is – crap.” coach declared.

They got it. Right then, right there. Losing was different after that speech. They held their heads high and absorbed the insults like happy sponges, filling themselves not with the agony of defeat, but with the pride of losing gracefully, and the feeling of genuine happiness for their opponent’s win. They knew well that feeling of winning, and while they certainly didn’t like to lose, they learned to do so with grace.

The Rockies won the championship that year. Like the losing team in the U-12 football championship, our opponents had fought hard, played well, and were understandably disappointed.

As the dust settled on the field, the tears began to fall. My husband and I were so proud to witness the compassion shown to the heartbroken opponents, as the Rockies offered their opponents hugs, encouragement, and praise for a game well played. There were no insults hurled, or joy found in their sorrow. The Rockies celebrated long and hard in the appropriate place and at appropriate time, and Bill was carried off the field on the shoulders of parents and children alike.

My son, now 31, has never forgotten Bill, or the Rockies. Dylan is a caring and compassionate man and has applied his coach’s philosophy to many aspects of his life. He’s grateful for having known Coach Bill, and for all he learned during those formative years.

When Dylan’s father died in 2009, the church was filled with friends, family, and acquaintances. While listening to the eulogy, I quietly nudged Dylan and tilted my head to the right. Through his tears, my son looked over to see that Coach Bill was in attendance. We’d not seen him in 14 years. Dylan sat a little taller in his pew, finding comfort in Bill’s presence, reminding him that even in this loss, there’s grace.

My Love/Hate Relationship With T-Ball

When my daughter wanted to join a T-ball team, it sounded like fun.Then I discovered that I was expected to watch.

When my oldest was in kindergarten, she heard something at school about this great activity T-ball.

She wanted to play; my husband decided to coach a team. The teams were formed and we soon had a practice schedule on the fridge. This gave me the unexpected benefit of one-on-one time with my second born and when Saturday practice coincided with naptime, the luxury of an hour to myself.

Despite having to adjust the dinner schedule to accommodate this new activity, this all sounded great to me. The season lasted through the spring.

Opening day in our town is a big deal. There is a parade of teams of all ages, T-ball through “majors” which ends at the ball field where all the players and coaches are treated to hot dogs and drinks. Then there is the ceremonial first pitch and some practice innings. Again, this sounded like fun. I could go watch the parade with my two-year- old and we could play at the park for a little while.

Then the regular season began and I discovered that I was expected to come watch. Really?

I thought this was a father/daughter activity. But apparently I was wrong, so I went and sat, and got up and chased a two-year-old and sat, and watched children run from home to third and chased a toddler and looked up to see the outfielders all run in and crash into each other after a infield fly ball, and so on.

Before long, I determined that I did not like T-ball. There were many things I would rather do, many of which I did not have a special fondness for at any time before or since. But the rest of the family liked it, so off I went to the ball field each spring. As they got older and their skills increased, the games became more enjoyable to watch, at least when I wasn’t chasing a toddler instead of actually watching the game.

When we got to the point where we had three children involved in the baseball program, we realized that having only one coach in the house was going to be a problem.

My husband had successfully juggled two baseball team schedules, but a third was pushing it. Not coaching one of them was something we didn’t even consider. I never played any sort of organized sports, but I did play baseball with the neighborhood boys on my street (most times, actually in the street). I had also sat through four T-ball seasons, so I knew what to expect.

So I signed on to coach. Because I was a little concerned about being the only woman coach in the T-ball division (there were some female coaches, for the relatively new softball division for the older girls), and also because I believe that if you are going to do something you should do it well, I spent some time preparing for the season. I researched coaching techniques and how to teach basic skills (I was a purely intuitive player – no one had taught me anything). I picked my husband’s brain and worried that I was not up to the task.

I know, this is silly, it was just T-ball. Most of the kids were in it just for something to do. But I had seen how some kids later on were missing some of the basics and I wanted to actually teach them something, not just have chaos on the diamond.

One of my pet peeves was when the kids would slow down when they approached first base. (I came up with a creative solution to this. I stationed a coach a couple feet beyond the base with a sheet of stickers. If you overran the base, you got a sticker. After a few weeks, most of them had it figured out.)

This was my first experience working with a group of young children and it was eye-opening. Of course I had spent time with kids this age before, this was my third, so I knew that developmentally, these kids were all over the map.

I found that being on the field with these kids was actually a lot more fun than sitting and watching.

I know that it is easier and better to learn to do something correctly the first time, that unlearning a behavior is more difficult than learning one, and that habits are tough to break. So I tried to give them a good foundation. I had two other coaches working with me and we had about a dozen kids on the team.

We managed to teach some basic skills, and learned some ourselves (such as making sure to hold the bat when helping a young player set up at home plate, then stepping out quickly, getting hit with a bat hurts).

I found that being on the field with these kids was actually a lot more fun than sitting and watching.

The season went much like others. There was at least one moment when the entire infield went for the ball at the same time. A handful of kids ran to third instead of first. The shortstop would be looking at a bug on his shoe when the ball came his way. The outfielders would be watching passing planes or birds. Someone would actually catch a fly ball and he or she (and parents) would look shocked and then break out in a goofy grin.

In some ways it was like being out with my own kids: constantly looking around for danger, reminding them to pay attention to what they were doing and performing the occasional head count. I still see some of these kids on occasion, and a couple of them remember that season.

For the next few years, I got used to hearing Coach Kim, both on and off the ball field. Today I find that I actually miss those days.

The Surprising Numbers Behind the Decline of Kids’ Team Sports

It’s not just Little League – about half of American children don’t participate in any team sport

My kid is almost 8. She loves playing baseball – batting, catching, tagging kids out and especially running the bases.

She’s an exception to the trend of baseball’s declining popularity among kids.

Last year, for the first time, ESPN Sports Poll’s annual survey of young Americans’ 30 favorite sports players had no baseball players on the list.

Youth participation in Little League declined from 3 million in the 1990s to 2.4 million in 2012.  Around the nation, little leagues are consolidating with their neighbors.

But it’s not just baseball – about half of American children don’t participate in any team sport

With all the hand-wringing about baseball’s supposed slow pace, lack of action and conservative culture, the most surprising thing about its decline is that it isn’t alone.

In Marc Fisher’s Washington Post article about baseball’s “struggle” to connect with kids, he reports that participation in all sports has dropped by more than 9 percent nationwide over the past five years.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal shared a report from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association showing how specific sports have lost ground among kids aged 6 – 18:

  • participation in tackle football was down 5.4%
  • participation in soccer was down 7.1%
  • participation in baseball was down 7.2%
  • participation in basketball was down 8.3%

However, these two sports actually saw increases in youth involvement:

  • participation in ice hockey was up 64%
  • participation in lacrosse was up 158%

Meanwhile, youth are more inactive than ever.

The percentage of inactive 6-to-12-year-olds—youths involved in no physical activities over a 12-month period—rose to near 20% in 2012 from 16% in 2007, according to the SFIA/Physical Activity Council survey.

Inactive 13-to-17-year-olds rose to 19% from 17%.

 The single biggest factor in how much someone loves a sport is if they played it as a kid.

In conversation with Marc Fisher in the Washington PostRob Manfred, the commissioner of Major League Baseball says “the single biggest predictor of avidity in sports is whether you played as a kid.”

In that same conversation, Patrick Wilson, Little League’s senior vice president of operations said “We’ve seen a decline in participation over the past 12 years, 1 or 2 percent every year.” He attributed this to the fact than many parents didn’t play baseball and so are less likely to introduce it to their kids.

It seems that kids aren’t just playing less team sports because they’re doing other things – schoolwork, video games, alternative sports, social media, watching TV – they’re playing less team sports because the structure and interests of the American family are changing.

This reminds me of another study reported by NPR (How We Become Sports Fans) that found that fathers have the greatest influence when a kid chooses his or her first favorite sports team.

This is all to say, LET’S GO RED SOX.

Playlist for Kids and Parents: Baseball Songs!

We’re celebrating opening day with a playlist of great baseball songs.

(Note from Ed: Definitely going to blast this on our next family trip to Fenway!)

Playlist

 

The Star Spangled Banner – Whitney Houston – The Star Spangled Banner/America The Beautiful

Take Me Out To The Ball Game – Sophie Milman – Take Me Out To The Ball Game

Eye of the Tiger – Survivor – Eye Of The Tiger

Centerfield – John Fogerty – Centerfield

Glory Days – Bruce Springsteen – Greatest Hits

Start Me Up – The Rolling Stones – Tattoo You (2009 Re-Mastered)

Joe Dimaggio Done It Again –  Billy Bragg, Wilco – Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions

Sweet Caroline –  Neil Diamond – Sweet Caroline

Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye – Steam – 60’s Gold

We Are The Champions – Queen – Greatest Hits

Girls Play Baseball: Lessons From Youtube

Girls can't play baseball? Hold it right there, grasshopper.
Girls can’t play baseball? Hold it right there, grasshopper.

 

A few days after Christmas, we slowly started relocating the gifts that remained under the tree to their proper resting places. Among the clothes, forsaken for noisier more exciting things, lay the baseball and glove given to my three year old daughter by her uncle. She had unwrapped it and accepted it graciously, if not enthusiastically, yet hadn’t touched it since.

“I don’t want this, Mama.”, she declared as she plopped it into my hands.

“Why not? Uncle Paul gave it to you. He’s the best.”

“I don’t want to play baseball. Girls don’t play baseball.”, she offered, matter-of-factly.

Here’s the thing. I don’t care how my kids suss out gender “norms”. It seems perfectly natural that there comes a point in each child’s life, when they begin to make delineations between themselves and the rest of the world. Having just started to wrap a rapidly developing brain around the fact that they are an individual, a being completely separate of their parents, there’s comfort in compartmentalizing what they observe. I just don’t want them to get lost in absolutes.

Without even bothering to argue, I ushered her over to the kitchen table.

“Come with me. Sit on my lap.”

As I sat the glove down alongside my computer, I pulled her up and typed “Mo’ne Davis” into youtube.

She watched quietly as the powerhouse of a teenage girl disproved that theory faster than the ball could fly.

After watching a few more, per her request, I asked, “So, do you still think girls don’t play baseball?”

“No. But I still don’t want to play it.”

That’s fine, little girl. So long as you know you can. I can live with that. And may your stubbornness serve you well.

Have you ever used Youtube to teach your kid a lesson? Any favorites that lay down the law?