I coach two youth soccer teams. They’re just recreational teams, so we’re not grooming future Premiership players or anything. I just focus on having fun and learning teamwork, and the boys, including my sons, seem to enjoy it.
As the roster of one team expanded this fall, we added a few players. This is a tale of two of them.
If I were a betting man, I’d wager one of them is headed to a lifetime of success and happiness, and the other may have a pretty tough row to hoe.
And I’m willing to make that bet after about 60 seconds of 1:1 interaction with each of them.
Player 1 is quiet and shy, which is generally not a bad thing, but I realized that this facade was hiding some pretty dark stuff. At our last practice, I gave him some advice on something he was doing wrong (delivered in a very positive and happy tone), and suddenly the demon was unleashed. He gave me a look of cold hatred and said, dripping with contempt, “I did it right in the game, so who cares? This is just practice.” Whoa. Nice first impression, kid. I wonder what Vince Lombardi would have said to that? I didn’t explode (sorry, ghost of Lombardi) and just encouraged him to get it right in practice, too. Later, during a scrimmage, he started to loudly complain about all of his new teammates, saying they were no good and couldn’t even pass (not true, and pretty shocking to their ears). Then when we finished practice and I called the team together to say some final words, he just walked off. I called him back, and he said, “It’s hot and I’m going home.” He came back after I gave an ominous, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you…,” but if looks could kill, I’d be dead.
Player 2 has taken a different approach. I gave him some feedback, and he looked very receptive and thoughtful and said, “Yessir!” Whenever I speak to him, he looks me in the eye and smiles. He’s already working hard to fit in with his new friends, and he matches his play and passes (he’s quite good) to each player’s ability. Whenever I ask him to do or remember something, he’s quick with “Yessir!” (he really seems to like that word). And when Player 1 did his diva thing and I gave the whole team just a peek at the volcano I can become – talking about how teamwork & respect are non-negotiable and I’m benching anyone who thinks otherwise – guess who responded with the loudest “YESSIR!!!”? Oh and during our first game he picked up some trash from the field and threw it away when he was subbed (I’m not making this up).
Maybe Player 1 couldn’t stand the hot day, or his brother broke his favorite toy, or his pet rabbit just died. Maybe.
Maybe Player 2 just got a new video game, or he was headed for ice cream after practice, or he just won the lottery. Maybe.
The point is, a pretty nice and reasonable adult (that’s me!) has an extremely poor opinion of Player 1 and an extremely high opinion of Player 2. After 60 seconds of interaction. Somewhere along the line, Player 1 discovered that it’s OK to speak with extreme disrespect to an adult. Somewhere along the line, Player 2 learned it was not.
I also discovered that at this age (these are 12 y.o.’s), I’ve stopped fully blaming parents for bad kids and started blaming the kid himself. When Player 1 showed his teeth, I didn’t think, “Ah – a troubled lad whom I can support and help overcome whatever shortcomings he’s suffered from poor parenting.” My thoughts were more like, “This kid sucks.” I was mainly worried about his influence on the team, and I wasn’t alone. One of my assistant coaches said we needed to keep his bad attitude from spreading like cancer. Yeah. He used the word cancer.
I’m going to be super supportive and positive with both of these kids, ‘cause that’s the deal I accepted when I made the questionable decision to start coaching youth soccer. And who knows? Maybe I’ll have some amazing breakthrough a la Good Will Hunting with Player 1 and we’ll be buddies for life. But with limited time on my hands and an obligation to the entire team, I’m going to see the best returns working with the positive, respectful kids. I promise that teachers, other coaches, and (eventually) bosses feel exactly the same way.
I’m already looking forward to helping Player 2 develop as a player and a person. I’ve even written his mom and said how much we love having him on the team and how proud they should be for how he behaves. He might even get an ice cream out of it.
I’m already hoping Player 1 doesn’t return next season. If he keeps up his bad behavior, especially after my dire warning, I will broach his lack of respect and negativity with his parents, but right now I’m simply assuming that’s the way they’ve raised him. Ouch.
If you’ve ever worried about how your kids interact with others and how much respect they pay to their peers, teachers, and coaches, keep worrying. It matters. People will make snap judgments on a kid’s upbringing, likeability, and character based on a very brief interaction. While that sounds unfair, perhaps it’s not. Learning respect – or disrespect – is not something that happens overnight. I imagine years of lessons and reinforcement went into prepping these two players for their first interaction with me.
So as you optimize your kids’ grades, social status, sports, friends, other activities, college, and future career, don’t neglect developing one of the most important aspects of their character. Learning to respect others is not complicated, but man is it hard. It doesn’t cost a penny, but it is nowhere close to free. If you do it right, though, you will be giving your child one of the most valuable assets in the world, one that will give them an easier, happier, and better life.