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Malcolm Friedberg Headshot

America (YSO) Killed the Game I Love

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One of my favorite memories from childhood is the smell of freshly cut, dewy grass in the morning. Just a whiff takes me back. I could be 8, even as young as 6. Doesn't matter. It's a Saturday morning, and I'm dressed for my 8:00 a.m. soccer game. Excited to be in the uniform I carefully, almost ritualistically, put on just moments before. My Adidas double knotted. Shin guards nice and snug. Socks pulled up to the knees, and my #8 uniform neatly tucked into my solid black shorts.

I look back on it, and it's as if I was a mini-warrior readying myself for battle. And battle I did, every Saturday growing up. Lot's of very special memories and many important lessons learned.

Now, my Saturday morning ritual involves being a coach. I never really left because soccer is a game I love. I coached my first team around the age of 14 when my younger brother played. After a 20+ year hiatus, my eldest son turned 5, and I started back up again. Now I'm coaching boy number two. (Boy number three just turned 4, so I have a few more years of coaching ahead of me.) All told I've probably coached about a dozen seasons of soccer and an equal number of little league.

But today, the league that brought me so much joy and many fond memories killed my sport. A game that is under-appreciated in our fast pace, high scoring, TV-friendly world, had the guts ripped out of it. If you want to see your kid score a diving header, don't come watch my guys. Intentional heading isn't allowed. If you want to see some fancy dribbling and juking the goalie, you won't. There are no goalies. And if you want to watch a game where kids huddle around the ball like a pack of dogs moving up and down the field, you can't. We only play five players to a side. Oh, and if you want to hear the joy in your kid's voice because his team won, you won't. We also don't keep score.

I understand the rationale as to why they disassembled the game I knew, but at what cost? So I can teach my kids to duck when the ball comes near their heads? So I can instruct them to shoot the ball any chance they get, even from their own half, because there's no goalie to stop it? So, I can tell them to focus on playing good defense even though no one's keeping score? And worst of all, so I can teach my kids that winning doesn't matter at all?

Sorry, but that approach is wrong. As a kid, I won and I lost many games. But every Saturday, I was given the opportunity to compete: to play hard and compete. And over time I slowly recognized that sports and competition isn't fair or just; that my best, or my team's best, wasn't always good enough to win. Yes, I should feel good about myself for trying hard. And, yes, I should support my teammates for their efforts. Those are laudable ideals that are critically important to youth sports. But there's more to youth sports than that, at least I think there should be.

Eliminating adversity so kids don't learn to overcome disappointment and challenges doesn't do them any favors. In my experience, learning how to pick yourself up after a defeat is one of the greatest skills you can have. I think they call that perseverance. Aren't we just denying our kids the chance to do what they naturally want to do anyway? Come on, do you really think the kids don't keep score even if the adults aren't supposed to? Doesn't diluting the game of its competitive nature really deny them a huge learning opportunity?

When I was a kid, winners got trophies and the losers got nothing. My 8-year-old has a big collection of trophies from different sports, most of which were given out at the end the year regardless of how his team performed. He only cares about one or two, ones he received for achieving a belt or being selected as the most improved. In short, the ones he earned. At the end of this season I'll give him and his teammates another trophy. For what? Showing up to practice? Participating? Passing up Scooby Doo? Tell me, what lesson will he have learned then?

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