Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Longest Yard

Effort is simply not commensurate with financial capability. It just is not. And that’s why I don’t understand the rationale some people use when excusing poor behavior, poor execution, and poor instruction based on what something costs, or what someone could afford to spend. Be it in school or on the football field, I find it repulsive and, frankly, a cop out that someone would make that correlation.

It costs nothing to pay attention when someone is speaking to you. It costs nothing to do what you’re told. It costs nothing to work your butt off in class, continuously building on your successes. It costs nothing to give your absolute gut-wrenching best in pursuit of a win. The expectation of structure and order is also free.

In his first year of tackle football, we signed our son up for a league with a $35 cost of participation. Our other options were higher-priced; some were upwards of $200. Because this was basically an experiment to see whether or not our child would enjoy hitting others, and not freak out at being hit by others, we were leery of spending a lot of money.

I fully disclose that I do not have any insight into the behind-the-scenes operations of the organization that runs our son’s league, but I can tell you from day one that I was not impressed. Again, the ‘get what you paid for’ excuse was used to combat not having a fixed schedule, not being able to depend on players’ parents to step up to their obligations, or teaching their children what my wife and I believe to be the basics of acceptable behavior. What was most telling, though, was a conversation I had with a grandparent who said that he and his grandson experienced the same kind of organizational apathy the previous year when they, themselves, participated on one of the $200 teams.

For the first three games of the season, our boys were 3-0 and after each win, they were over the moon. Their first loss was a hard-fought battle, resulting in a 0-2 final score; a safety in the final two minutes sealed their fate. From that moment on, the wheels began to come off. Not everybody, but some people, theorized that the $200 teams were probably better, based on what their parents could afford to contribute toward their success. (You have to wonder what the $200 teams were using as their excuse when they lost to us.)

Today, our $200 opponents seemed to operate in unison. They stood quietly in line during the pre-game weigh-in, and moved in silent lock step afterward, walking seamlessly back to their gathering area. They warmed up as a unit, and they listened to their coaches. In contrast, my wife (and me, to a very minor extent) had to repeatedly admonish our team to do what she’d just told them moments ago. Stand there with your mouth shut, looking forward, and keep your hands to yourselves. Warm ups weren’t disjointed, but fluid wasn’t an adjective I would have used. Our attitudes handicapped us from the beginning. You could see it on their faces and in their actions, and you could hear it in their voices. They were defeated before they began. We got our butts kicked 32-0.

The longest yard these boys have to face isn’t on the football field; far from it, in fact. Life is hard enough, and only gets crazier the older you get. If we don’t prepare them well to face challenges, then who will? Whether our pockets are lighter by $35 or $200 or $1,000 dollars, what’s most important is what we’re teaching our children, and how they react to both the joy of winning, and the abject heartbreak of losing. By not instilling in our children a passion for excellence, we are failing them. By allowing our children to do their best until such time as they don’t think they can win and simply throw in the towel, we are failing them. In not providing our children with a basic understanding of how you are to act in public, how you are to appropriately address an adult, and how you overcome adversity, we are failing them. When we expose our children to chaos, thinking they aren’t paying attention to how we approach a solution to a very simple problem, we are failing them.

As it turns out, our child has flourished in tackle football and has moved up the ranks on his team. He proved himself by doing what he was told, the first time and without argument. The rewards of his efforts were increased adulation, increased respect by his coaches and teammates, and an increase in his self-awareness and pride. Our child isn’t perfect. He makes mistakes just like any nine year old. His mother and I aren’t perfect, either. We make mistakes, too. And all three of us try to learn from those mistakes.

Parents and coaches and teachers and administrators have a no-cost obligation to do right by the children in our lives.

If we don’t, they’re the ones who’ll pay the price.