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Posts Tagged ‘sportsmanship’


All this week, two things have been pretty much dominating our days: the ongoing drama (I heard one commentator calling it “Kabuki theater”) of the debt ceiling debate, and football camp.

Even though I have largely sworn off watching political coverage, the specter of a possible national default was enough to persuade me to start checking in with the news again. The irony of the public horror at the thought of declaring bankruptcy when I myself just had to go through it did not escape me. Indeed, when I first heard a news anchor waxing passionate on the subject I have to admit I rolled my eyes and said, “This would probably bother me a lot more had I not just had to do it myself.”

Then I did a little research and realized that there was a lot more involved, that as with most of what we see happening politically these days the real debate was over things that really don’t hold up well under scrutiny, and that raising the debt ceiling has nothing to do with allowing us to incur more expenses, but everything to do with honoring debts we have already incurred.

I came to the conclusion that the debt ceiling should be raised, no matter how distasteful the idea may be. I even agree that we should get spending under control, and that some of the loopholes that allow those who bear much of the responsibility for the global crash to evade paying their fair share should be closed.

The hitch, of course, is that Taxes have become a religion to many in the Republican party, and as with any religion, you have your liberals, who might concede to closing tax loopholes, and your conservatives, who might consent under duress but who suspect the liberals are probably going to Hell. And then you have your lunatic fringe, the wild-eyed tax fundamentalists who insist that what was good enough for George Washington tax-wise should be good enough for us.

And if that isn’t enough, you’ve also got your basic Mean Girl thing going on in the GOP, which has decided that Good Policy is making President Obama’s life so miserable he finally gives up and goes away and lets them have the best office again. I could talk about how veiled and therefore more virulent racism seems to fuel a lot of that, but what would be the point? Somebody somewhere would be sure to utter the words, “Job-killing taxes,” and there we would be, in the middle of an argument we cannot hope to settle because the real things we’re arguing about aren’t the things many of us claim to be arguing about. And because for some of us, our position has become an article of faith, something in which we believe, even though we can’t really provide a good explanation for it. In fact, merely asking for fact-based, logical reasons for our beliefs is like expecting us to produce God in a test tube.

So there’s the news. But in our town there’s also football camp. Every year, the middle school and high school coaches send out word that for two weeks in July they will teach any kid in town old enough to walk and potty train reliably how to play football. (Actually I think kids have to be in elementary school, but you get my point. They cast their nets wide, because there aren’t enough big fish around here for us to be snobbish about hauling in a few minnows.)

Every evening for the last two weeks, the practice field between the high school and the middle school has filled up with boys ranging in height from Patrick, who is six four now, down to a very small child whose head didn’t reach a number of the boys’ waists. I think his big brother wanted to come to football camp, but he had to babysit. And so he brought his little brother along. And because this is our town, and coaches make allowances to get as many kids onto the field as possible, they made the little guy a part of the program. All this week he has run plays with boys bigger and older than he is. He had an unfortunate meeting with a big boy foot during stretches a couple nights ago and developed a nice shiner, but he ran on, undaunted.

He’s the smallest boy, but he’s far from the only little one. Because we’re small potatoes here, football camp welcomes all shapes and sizes. The coaches divide the boys by size and ability for running drills, but the whole group stretches together, and from time to time throughout the evening the head coach blows his whistle and brings all the boys together for footraces, pushing contests, and various games designed to build speed, stamina, and spirit. Patrick says he also talks to them about what it means to be a team–that you become family, encourage the weaker and slower among you, and celebrate all victories together. I saw it play out in the exercises and races, where faster, more agile boys would sometimes double back to run with and encourage a slower boy, and where everybody cheered for a boy who succeeded in doing something right for the first time.

For the last two weeks, I have sat on the grass with my back propped against a power pole and watched a few of the men in my town teach the boys and young men coming after them about the joys of doing something well, of working as a team, and of stretching one’s self beyond one’s limits.

But as I watched I realized that those boys are learning something else as well. They are learning how to be careful of each other. There are probably almost a hundred boys out on that field. They range in height from 6’4″ down to the little guy, who is maybe three feet tall. For much of the time they are engaged in vigorous, close-range activity. There have been few accidents, none serious. I look at the big boys, and watch how they temper their responses to teach the young ones rather than dominate them. I watched the littlest kid’s big brother keep track of him. I watched the coaches watch out for him, shaping his participation to both teach him and protect him. I watched the coaches help the boys to discover each others’ strengths and weaknesses, and then work together for a common goal.

I watched all that, and I realized that while our national life is very much reverting to the law of tooth and claw and might is all, in our town, at least, the boys in football camp are learning about a different law–a law that says that everyone who wants to be involved is welcome, that everyone needs to try their best, that there is no room for egos and power trips on the field, and that if you’re bigger and stronger you have a responsibility to do more than just outplay everyone else. You are responsible for seeing to it that your actions don’t injure the smaller and weaker among you. And you are responsible for showing them what it means to participate with joy, with passion, with excellence, with respect for others, and with honor and sportsmanship. Football camp is about teaching football, but the way it happens here it’s about teaching honor as well.

Perhaps President Obama needs to hold a football camp. I’m happyt to ask our coaches if they’re available.

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The Meanest Thing


I’ve blogged about my son in sports. I’ve waxed lyrical about the good sportsmanship the boys learn. I’ve mulled over when to cheer and when not to. Well, tonight, I cheered as a rebuke. I saw something that made me mad enough to spit nails.

We had another wrestling meet. Several schools were there, as they always are. Patrick had finished his match (he only had the one tonight) and we were more or less killing time until the meet was over and we could help clean up the gym (our school hosted it this time; when that happens we have to help roll up the mats, clean up the bleachers, and so forth).

So anyhow Patrick’s off somewhere and I’m sitting there with the high school coach’s wife–whose son is also wrestling, and we’re talking back and forth and not really paying much attention until the coach’s wife says, “Hey, that’s not very nice.”

“What?” I asked, and looked toward the mat.

The coach on the mat (from a school other than ours) was nearly apoplectic. “He’s playing with you,” he was shouting, interspersing it with various other directives.

It was true. The wrestlers were clearly mismatched in ability. And the more skilled boy was toying with his opponent. He’d take him down, then let him up, then take him down, let him up, take him down…it went on forever. His opponent was stumbling, clearly exhausted, and just as clearly confused.

“Don’t play his game,” shouted his coach.

And suddenly I heard the coach’s wife behind me shouting, “Go, Pendleton! You can do it! Go, Pendleton!” The Pendleton boy stumbled to his feet. We clapped, along with the other people in our section of the stands who had seen what was happening. “Yeah! Go Pendleton!” we all shouted.

“What’s his name?” I asked his coach.

He told me. And we shouted his name as he endured the humiliation his opponent was heaping upon him.

“Just stay down,” the coach shouted at last. “Just stay down.”

The Pendleton boy did. The match was over. The other boy won. The Pendleton boy left the mat, shook his opponent’s coach’s hand, then went to his own coach. “You did good,” his coach said, or words to that effect. “He was playing games. When they do that, you don’t have to stay there and let them humiliate you. Just stay down and let it be over.”

It was infuriating to watch, even though it did make a certain kind of sense. Wrestlers gain points for take-downs. By letting the Pendleton boy get up and taking him down time after time, the boy had racked himself up an impressive score. But it seems to me that there comes a point where strategy becomes bullying. That was bullying. Playing cat and mouse with a less experienced, clearly less able opponent is not good sportsmanship.

I’ve talked a lot about all the good that can come of participation in sports. Patrick has benefitted enormously. But any sports program is only as good as the sportsmanship it teaches. I don’t know where that boy learned to do that. I suspect it was something his coach had suggested; in a subsequent match I saw him begin to pull the same trick. He had his opponent down. The pin was assured. And he held his opponent’s shoulders off the mat, preventing the pin, and looked over at his coach. And then he let the boy up, took him down again, and pinned him.

That boy won his matches, and he racked up his points, but I find myself wishing he had fought respectfully, granting his opponents the dignity of a quick loss, rather than inflicting humiliation for the duration of the time allowed for the match. I find myself wondering what that coach is teaching–if he is teaching sportsmanship as well as gamesmanship, if he is teaching his boys how to both win and lose graciously. I wonder if he is encouraging his wrestlers to cultivate friendships among the boys with whom they compete, or if he encourages them to see the boys with whom they wrestle not as opponents, but as enemies. I wonder if he is the coach who wears a shirt that says, “If you want a victory, prepare for a war.” Personally, I would prefer that we not turn middle school sports into battle grounds.

We in the stands did what we could. By cheering the Pendleton boy–who was not from our school, and whom none of us knew–we sent a clear message. “We see. We know. And it’s not good form,” we said.

I am so grateful that my son is coached by men to whom the joy of sports and good sportsmanship still mean something. If you have a kid in sports, and you’re fortunate enough to have a coach who thinks in terms of building character as well as winning trophies, take a few minutes and send them a note. It matters.

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We had another wrestling meet last night. Patrick remains undefeated, which is lovely. And I had an opportunity to further refine my increasingly complex philosophy about how, when, and about what to cheer.

When I blogged about the wrestling before I noted how being the mother of a frequent winner can be a somewhat lonely place, cheering-wise. People like cheering for the underdog. Patrick and I benefitted from that fact during his first season of middle school wrestling. Now, in his second season, when he is proving to be a fairly formidable force on the mat, he doesn’t get that boost from the stands.

There are two ways to look at this. One is that it’s human nature to want to see a winner defeated. The other is that it’s human nature to want to see someone struggle–and succeed. When I listen to the stands, I can hear both schools of thought reflected.

Does this make a difference? Yes, according to the experts. In our district, sports parents receive sportsmanship guidelines–and parents who violate them run the risk of being ejected from the event.

It makes a difference to the kids, too–at least it does to my kid. So back to last night. Patrick wrestled against two boys. His first opponent was just starting out. About ten seconds into the match I knew I would not be cheering. It just seemed wrong to cheer for my kid against a kid who had far less experience, ability, and training. The second match was less one-sided; he wrestled a boy he has wrestled before, and beaten. Boy, has that boy been practicing. Last night Patrick won, but on points, not by pinning.

I could have cheered for that match; it was a fast, exciting, even bout. But I didn’t, because no one else was cheering for the other boy. And that’s the lesson I came away with last night. If we expect sportsmanship on the mats, we have to show sportsmanship in the stands. While I won’t cheer against Patrick–there are some things a mother just shouldn’t be asked to do–I am learning that there are times when I should keep my boostership a private thing. It’s not sporting to cheer my son on to victory over a clearly less-able opponent. It’s not sporting–or particularly attractive–to sit screaming in the stands if no one is similarly supporting my son’s opponent.

What I think I’m learning is that the coach who comes to meets in a t-shirt that says, “If you want a victory, prepare for a war,” on it and I look at middle school sports very differently. War is about winning. Sports is about building bodies and characters, about learning the kind of nobility that is able to win and lose with dignity, and without gloating, or demonizing one’s opponent. It’s about learning to compete without anger. It’s about showing up, and working your butt off to hone a skill. And for me, it’s about learning when to speak, when to scream–and when to be silent. It’s about learning to accept my child’s defeats as well as his victories. Middle school sports can be all about teaching parents as well as children how to be good sports.

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Patrick’s wrestling again this season. I was surprised when he came home with the forms for me to sign.

See, this is not the first time Patrick’s wrestled. His first experience was when he was about eight or so. I signed him up, primarily because it’s such great overall conditioning, and we were City Folk, and I wanted him to have an alternative to video games.

Even at eight, Patrick was already shaping up to be Very Large. I’d been preaching non-violence for the last four years. This did not prepare him for wrestling. He soldiered through the laps, the wheelbarrow races, the somersaults, sprints, the jumping jacks, and the sit-ups. And then we got to the First Position.

The coach paired all the boys up by size and experience, demonstrated how to break down their partner’s base (that makes sense if you’re in wrestling; if not just think “how to make the other kid do a face plant from hands and knees”) and told them to have at it.

It was not pretty. Patrick clearly was still thinking Non-Violence. And when we got to the actual standing-up-and-trying-not-to-fall-down-while-your-partner-is-striving-for-that-very-thing bit, well, that night Patrick went home in tears. “Why would he want to knock me down, Mom?” he asked.

Explaining that this was a sport didn’t help. We moved on.

Two years ago Patrick came home and informed me that he was signing up for wrestling. He was twelve, and even larger, and I figured what the heck. It’s still good conditioning. And this time, he had some idea what he was getting into.

He had a couple weeks’ worth of training, and then we went to the first meet. To everyone’s amazement, he won his first match. When his opponent asked for a rematch Patrick declined. “I just want to savor this,” he said. And when I asked if he wanted to ride home with me or on the bus he opted for the bus. “So I can receive the congratulations of my teammates,” he said.

It was as well he savored that victory. It was the only one he got, all season. Non-violence might be a good life choice, but it sucks as a basis for wrestling. It wasn’t that Patrick didn’t try. He did. He tried and tried. And every match, he lost. And then, about halfway through the season, he discovered that once thrown, he could stand up. This sounds like a simple thing, but you try it.

First run around your house about fifteen times. Then grapple with your partner for an intense five minutes. Then lie down flat on the floor, on your stomach, and have your partner sprawl on your back, wrap his or her arm around your neck, pull your head back, and choke you while simultaneously hooking a leg around yours and trying to flip you over.

Now stand up.

The first time he figured that out we were at a meet, far away in the mountains. He was lying on the floor, on his stomach, getting choked, his opponent on his back. In the past this had pretty much been the kiss of death for his hopes of at long last winning another match. This time, though, he pulled his hands under his chest, levered himself and the boy up off the floor, pulled one knee under him, braced himself, pulled the other knee under him, got a foot on the mat, then the other.

By this time, of course everybody from our team was screaming, “Stand up, Patrick, stand up.”

And he stood up. His opponent dangled from his back, his feet no longer touched the floor. Patrick broke the choke hold and turned around. His opponent threw him again. And again, Patrick stood up. And got thrown. And stood back up. At that point, it wasn’t just our team screaming for him, it was everybody in the stands. These were parents who had seen him getting thrown in match after match. They had sons wrestling. And they screamed for my kid because whether he won or lost, he was putting everything he had into that one simple act. He was still standing.

He lost that match. And the next one. And the next one. In fact, though he stood up whenever he could, and people screamed for him every time, he never won a match. He did, however, make friends with boys from the other schools–and he did that because one lesson the boys learn along with all the wrestling drills is sportsmanship. What happens on the mat, stays on the mat. The boys walk on together, do their best to pin each other, then walk off together. And like as not, stand together afterward, talking and laughing. New friends notwithstanding, when the season ended and Patrick said he thought he’d pursue other options. I understood why.

Which is why, when he brought the wrestling forms home, I was stunned, to put it mildly. But I kept that to myself. I just said, “Okay, honey,” and signed the forms, and made plans to turn up at the first meet.

When I picked him up after the first day of practice he said, “We learned how to shoot today. I feel like it’s going a lot better this time.”

“That’s great,” I said. Better is always good.

The next day he told me he’d taken down one of the coaches.

The next day he’d gotten a pin.

And then the first meet arrived. There was one boy for him to wrestle. This time, the Patrick on the mat was very different from the Patrick who had left the mat two years ago. He was faster. He took the match to his opponent. He threw him, and then he rolled him over and pinned him. Well, he’s gotten past that non-violence thing, I thought to myself, with some relief.

When the boy asked for a rematch Patrick again declined. I suspected that he was afraid of losing.

The next meet he wrestled two boys. They were smaller, and in their first year and Patrick won.

At the third meet, last night, Patrick signed in, then told me he was going to be wrestling four boys. He pinned his first opponent. He pinned his second opponent. He pinned his third opponent. When he and his fourth opponent took the mat it wasn’t so easy. Both of the boys had already wrestled three times. Both of them were experienced. The match went back and forth. And then Patrick threw his opponent and went for the pin.

His opponent twisted out of it. And the people in the stands started screaming. I, of course, was screaming for Patrick. So were his teammates. But just about everybody else was screaming for his opponent.

Two years ago, the stands screamed for Patrick because while he was losing, he fought every inch of the way in the only way he could. He stood up. Last night, they screamed for his opponent because they had just seen Patrick pin three other boys, and because his opponent put everything into not being the fourth pin.

Patrick is no longer the underdog on the wrestling mat. His first season he lost every match but one. This season he has won every match so far. And now is when it’s really going to get interesting. His first two meets passed virtually unnoticed. A pin against boys who are much smaller and less experienced is only to be expected. Three pins and a decision against boys who are closer to his size and experience didn’t slip by. Last night Patrick became the Man to Beat.

From here on out, coaches worth their salt will watch what he does and train their boys in how to combat his strengths and use his weaknesses. Boys who wrestle him will trade information. It was already happening last night. I heard his first opponent offering tips to a boy who had yet to wrestle him. “Stay off the bottom,” he said. And when the stands scream, most of the time they will be screaming for Patrick’s opponent.

If it felt a little lonely in the stands last night to hear everybody cheering the other boy, I can only imagine how it felt on the mat. Not that it seemed to matter much to the boys. I’m not sure they could even hear it. They finished their bout. The referee lifted Patrick’s hand–it was a decision, not a pin–and the two boys gave each other a quick hug, shook hands, and walked off the mat together.

And maybe that’s the whole point. This is a sport. This is not a battle. No matter how fickle the stands, what happens on the mat, stays on the mat. Patrick will win again. And he will lose again. But that’s on the mat. Off the mat, where most of life happens, he will stand with the boys who understand his losses–and his victories–best: the boys who wrestle him.

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