It was several years ago when I got the coach’s email, but it’s stuck with me ever since.
At the time, I was president of my local nonprofit soccer program for girls. Other coaches had reported this dad for not abiding by the no-keeping-score rule in our 2nd Grade developmental program (where we don't have keepers and we instruct parent coaches to give positive feedback for all good play - attacking, defending and scoring). They also complained he was bragging about how is team had "won" every game by a big margin.
“I can’t help it,” he wrote, by way of explaining his conduct. “I’m competitive.” My reply consisted of just a website link: “www.othsl.com.” “What’s that?” he e-mailed back. “A great outlet for your competitive streak,” I answered.
I had referred him to the New England Over the Hill Soccer League, a terrific organization that runs leagues for adult players, including many who play well into their 60s. My point was that while he was entitled to his competitiveness, he was indulging it - and himself - in the wrong place. I mean, how hard is it to be victorious in a game when the other team isn’t trying to win?
I thought back to that exchange after keeper Hope Solo’s recent suspension from the US Women’s National Team for calling Sweden “a bunch of cowards” after they beat the US playing a frustrating, bunkered-in, counterattacking style. “She said it in the heat of the moment!” her defenders cried. “She’s competitive!”
What do the two stories have in common? Competitiveness as an excuse, masquerading as a virtue. In both cases it was just a dodge to cover up a plain old lack of self-control.
Take Solo’s case. She is one of the top 20 or so female soccer players in a country of 319 million people. Does anyone really doubt that the other 19 players are just as competitive as she is? And yet they were all able to comport themselves as good teammates with dignity and proper sportswomanship, despite the frustrating bitterness of their quarterfinal Olympic loss. In fact, Solo’s career has been marred for years by incidents that illustrate her self-centered lack of control and that have nothing to do with competition on the field. (Like when she and her husband took a USWNT team van without permission and he was arrested for DUI.)
In the case of my coach friend, he was putting his own emotional needs ahead of the athletic and personal development of the girls entrusted to him by their parents and our league. By emphasizing goals scored in an empty net over other fundamental aspects of play, he was cheating his girls out of valuable soccer development at a formative age. By having them play with a different set of rules and giving them a false sense of superiority, he was setting them up to fail in 3rd grade when our league actually does start keeping score.
Unfortunately, other examples of competitive overemphasis and its negative consequences abound in youth soccer and youth sports in general. A 2015 study by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association found that participation rates have dropped in virtually every youth sport, driven to a large extent by programs that emphasize specialization and competitive success over the individual player’s enjoyment and overall development.
Competition is essential to the game, but it should be taught in gradual, managed stages and in a way that ensures maximum participation and healthy development. That means as coaches, we need to exercise our self-control and remember who we’re there for. (Hint: It’s not us.)
The kids should never be the means to an end. It’s about them.