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Jewish World Review May 25, 2000 / 20 Iyar, 5760

Betsy Hart

Betsy Hart
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"STOP WHINING, GET BACK INTO THE GAME, AND DO YOUR BEST!" -- ON SATURDAY MORNINGS my husband takes our two older kids to soccer practice, a duty he's recently taken over from me. And a couple of weeks ago, he walked in the door after practice with two children who were a bit dejected.

He explained to me that they were just not trying very hard out there on the field (which of course they knew) and he'd had to really push them to produce "maximum effort." Apparently he'd gotten disapproving looks from other parents when our little girl said her legs "weren't very happy" - her term for tired - and he sent her back into the practice anyway. (t's all of about 45 minutes with several long water breaks.) And when, for instance, he admonished our son to stop grumbling that he couldn't get the ball, and to just "get in there and do something about it."

In the end my husband told our kids in no uncertain terms that he expected them to put in a much better performance the next week.

Now this is not exactly the ethos behind today's "scoreless soccer" - prevalent in our neck of the woods - or feel-good, everybody is a winner and "you all did great!!!" kids sports mentality.

I thought it was terrific.

Look, we hardly expect our kids to be world-class athletes. And however we motivate them, we know it has to be age and developmentally appropriate. Nor am saying for a minute that I want to be one of those "little-league" parents who - at least in the movies - drive their kids to perform beyond their best and become angry if they don't walk away with the winner's trophy.

But by the same token, winning is important. It is a legitimate, and worthy, good. It is the achievement of excellence. In fact (gasp) winning is better than losing. Winning shouldn't be idolized. And winners should learn to be modest and gracious. But, it seems to me that playing by the rules and winning should be appropriately respected and honored more than it is in today's kids' sports. And for that matter elsewhere in our youth culture.

Honest athletics can teach not only healthy skills kids can enjoy for a lifetime, but also the value of discipline, focus, hard-work -- along with the pursuit and recognition of excellence. And surely learning to pursue excellence themselves means they will be more likely to genuinely appreciate, respect, and admire excellence in others. The true definition of being a "gracious loser."

In honest sports, as children grow older and their expertise increases, results become more and more measurable, definitive and objective. And that means the young people can assess their ability, their achievement, and their progress against a scoreboard, and gain a legitimate sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, or find out where and how to make changes and do better the next time.

And aren't all these things wonderful lessons for life? (Besides, you can't fool the even the smallest children. Parents know that in "scoreles soccer" the little ones themselves keep careful score.)

In my children's soccer class there is a little boy of about six who is one of the biggest kids in the group. But he is constantly dissolving into tears and going to his mother or father at what he thinks is the slightest injustice rendered him. Inevitably the parents coddle him and cater to his outbursts. But this kid is going to face much bigger hurdles in life than another child bumping into him here and there. So really, the biggest favor his parents could do for him would be to say "stop whining, get back into the game, and do your best."

In fact, that sounds to me like a pretty good motto for living, but one which too many kids these days just aren't hearing in any aspect of life least of all on the sports field -- one of the best places I can think of to practice it.

Well the week after our children received their dad's admonishment, they tried much harder and did much better - and they were pleased and happy with their legitimate achievement. All because they know we both love them unconditionally, and expect them to produce "maximum effort."

No, our kids will likely never be soccer stars. But we will work with them to find a sport which they enjoy and in which they can pursue excellence and develop some level of mastery. At the very least, we hope that someday when they need some strength to face a tough hurdle in life, they'll be able to draw on that sports experience and tell themselves to "stop whining, get back into the game, and do your best."

JWR contributor Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by clicking here.


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