My older daughter plays soccer, and has for the past several years. Along the way, her team has enjoyed good seasons and also suffered some disappointing losses. If you were to ask her what she enjoys most about playing soccer, the answers would probably include the uniform, new soccer cleats, being with her friends, the trophy, the post-season pizza party and maybe even practicing. Game day is always fun, but actually playing in the games might not even make the list.
The reality is she’s probably not going to become the next Mia Hamm, and she approaches soccer as something she gets to play to have a good time. Could she improve with more intense practice? That and better genes might make her a better player, sure, but she’s got her priorities straight. She cheers for her teammates while she’s not on the field. On and off the field, she jumps around when they score and walks sadly when the team gives up a goal. In a league that fields five players per team at a time, she gets into every game, but she doesn’t see the most playing time by any stretch.
She doesn’t complain. She’s on the team because she thinks it is fun. Some day she might decide she doesn’t enjoy it, and that’s OK too. She’ll find something else she enjoys and grow as an individual through that experience as well.
What she hasn’t had to encounter during her short team-sport career is being displaced at season’s end by recruited players. For the better part of a month there’s been an ongoing debate on the Bulletin’s editorial page and Web site about the practice of adding players to district-bound teams after a season. The result, in many cases, is that players who participated with a team all season - and contributed to the team’s on-field success - find themselves in support roles to unfamiliar players with better skills. Some parents have argued that this gives the team the best chance of winning on a larger stage. Others argue it teaches the children nothing but humiliation and places too much importance on winning rather than learning and participating. The latter are right.
Larger communities have select or club teams that allow more advanced players to compete against others who are at about the same level. We’ve had several local athletes who have followed this path to further their athletic endeavors, but to do so is a huge commitment of time and money that many families cannot make. Most, therefore, rely on the all-star type of teams that are created at season’s end.
Teams are a unit though, and often find success as a unit. Having standouts certainly helps your odds - but ask Steve Freeman if he’d rather have a strong program and cohesive team unit or a couple stars. If you don’t think team unity is important, ask Brett Favre why he isn’t in training camp for the Green Bay Packers. Team units bond when they go through meetings, practices, scrimmages and seasons together - teammates learning each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Team members learn to play a role, even if it is primarily a supporting role.
While changing the rule and keeping teams intact in the Brownwood leagues would not solve the larger problem around the rest of the state and country, it would send the proper message to our youth. Many of us are familiar with YMCA team sports and remember the motto that “Everyone’s a winner.” That’s not reality, though. In any competition there is a winner and a loser. That may be easier to accept in individual sports like tennis or track, when the outcome rides on one person’s performance. But the practice of adding players at season’s end reinforces the “win at all costs” mentality that has created so many of the problems with today’s athletes - young and old. Sports are about winning, but they are about winning the right way.
Bill Crist is associate publisher and general manager of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Wednesday. He may be reached by e-mail at bill.crist@