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Advice Jan 09, 2014

Should we teach gamesmanship in youth soccer?

JohnOSullivan-HeaderOn Oct. 15, as Graham Zusi headed the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team into a tie with Panama in World Cup qualifying, effectively eliminating the Panamanians and handing Mexico a lifeline into the World Cup, many of my friends and I had a discussion about the result.

Was it naïve of the U.S. to go for a result that would give Mexico, our most bitter rivals, the chance that they eventually took to qualify for the World Cup?

Should they not have just sat back, let Panama play out the game, and celebrate Mexico’s elimination?

Even Mexico’s head coach said at the time that if the roles were reversed, they would not have done that for the US.

Let’s look at other scenarios.

Was Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal (see video below) worth winning a World Cup?

How about Thierry Henry’s hand ball that eliminated Ireland from the 2010 World Cup, or Luis Suarez’s goal line save in the quarterfinal against Ghana (videos of both also below)?

Were these instances of cheating, gamesmanship or both?

All these scenarios beg the question: “What should we be teaching our young players about these situations where breaking the rules led to great success and minimal punishment for the offender?”

In soccer, there are plenty of instances of gamesmanship that occur on all levels. From a tug of the shirt, to trying to influence a referee’s decision on a throw-in, from not giving 10 yards on a free kick to slow a game down, to taking your time retrieving a ball out of bounds when up by a goal, there are lots of ways to gain an advantage that fall within the rules, but not always the spirit of the game. Most every sport has them, but the question is, should we teach them, and encourage them in our players?

When it comes down to it, we engage in gamesmanship and/or cheating in order to win, pure and simple. We do not do it to learn. We do not do it to teach our players the required technical skills to get to the next level. We do it for short-term results.

When I decided to write an article about this, I must admit it was difficult. I wanted to know peoples’ thoughts on where we draw the line when teaching things that are within the rules, but outside of the spirit of the game. Can we teach shortcuts to success in soccer and then expect our athletes to not find shortcuts to success outside of sport?

To answer this question, I made a number of phone calls to people I highly respect in coaching and education. Many of them gave very different answers, and we came up with numerous scenarios as to things that fall in the middle of right and wrong. In fact, every one of them had differing opinions on nearly every issue except one.

They all said, “I am glad I am not writing that article!”

I am going to give it a go anyway.

I think we would all agree that using performance enhancing drugs, or altering birth certificates of overage players, deliberately trying to injure an opponent, and the like would all be considered cheating, plain and simple. I have not spoken to anyone who says that these things are OK in youth sports. They are black and white.

But then there is the grey, the vast area between right and wrong that may not break the letter of the law, but certainly does not exist within the spirit of the game.

Do you claim an out-of-bounds ball that went off you?

Do you save a ball on the line with your hands to preserve a win?

Do you substitute players at the end of the game to kill the clock?

Does your soccer team stand in front of every dead ball so the other team cannot take a quick free kick?

What I am asking is this: Should coaches of young athletes teach them gamesmanship and how to manipulate the spirit of the game in order to succeed?

Whether you are a parent of an athlete trying to decide what coach to entrust your child to, or you are a coach deciding “What am I willing to compromise to win,” this is a question we all face. I think the soccer culture you grew up in affects the way you answer this as well.

But before we do, I think one really must answer another two other questions first.

Question 1: “What is the purpose of youth sports?”

Is my purpose and focus solely to prepare players for the next level, for collegiate or professional sports? If so, then perhaps your answer is “yes” – I should be teaching them all the things they need to be successful at the next level. Let’s not be naïve and think that gamesmanship is not a part of high-level athletics; it is and always will be.

On the other hand, is my purpose to use sports to teach character and core values, to prepare people for life both during and after sports? If so, then your answer is probably “No way!” Honesty is honesty, rules are rules, and if we are teaching that “bending the rules” in sports is OK, are we not also teaching our athletes that the ends justify the means, and it is acceptable to bend the rules when paying taxes, or taking a test, or trading stocks?

Consistency is key, and I see both coaches and parents being inconsistent by allowing certain types of behavior in sports that they would never allow in other aspects of life.

But what if our purpose as a coach is both? Many of us use sports to teach values and life lessons, but also coach high level athletes who aspire to play high school, college and professional sports. Are we diminishing their chances to succeed when we teach them to play within both the letter and spirit of the rules? Are we being inconsistent when we preach sportsmanship and integrity, yet teach that gamesmanship is an acceptable way to gain an advantage?

As a coach for two decades, I never asked a player to intentionally cheat or to deliberately injure an opponent. I was also a stickler for respecting officials.

That said, I did encourage players to help a referee make up his mind on a throw-in. I did tell players to take their time when taking a set piece if we were up a goal near the end of a game. I did make a late substitution to kill some time off the clock.

Was this wrong?

I know many ethical, honest people who disagree on the answer to this question. Was this teaching gamesmanship, was it breaking the rules, and are they the same thing?

This also leads to the second essential question we must ask ourselves, posed in a discussion with my friend Bruce Brown of Proactive Coaching:

Question 2: “How much am I willing to devalue my success by cutting corners to win?”

Both coaches and athletes need to decide if they are willing to take their eyes off of learning and executing the fundamental sport skills in exchange for a win. If we cannot defend well, do we foul, or take our lumps while we learn to defend? If we cannot possess the ball, do we play long balls all game long, hope for a goal, and then sub on every stoppage to run out the clock and break the other team’s rhythm, or do we work on possessing the ball?

In reality, though, our athletes cannot concentrate on playing the game if they are spending their time manipulating the rules, taunting opponents, or feigning injuries and fouls in order to get an advantage.

We might win a game, or we might win for a season or two by faking results, but our job as coaches is to teach and improve our players. Our job as parents is to find our children teachers, and not manipulators of results. Victories may be important, but not as important as how they were achieved.

Sport is an incredible venue to teach children character and life lessons in an environment that provides (usually) a safe place to learn these things. It also can provide adult mentors to guide our children through the trials and tribulations of learning, and give them positive role models for life.

Unfortunately, it is also a convenient place for children to learn how to cheat, how to cut corners, and how to take short cuts in pursuit of success. They can find adults who teach them that the win is all that counts, no matter how it is achieved. If we encourage this in sport, whether we like it or not we also encourage it in school, in marriage, in work, and throughout life.

I realize that writers are supposed to provide answers, and I have asked a lot more questions then I answered here – check back soon for Part 2, where I’ll try to fix that with a few more thoughts of my own.

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