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We Are Not On The Same Skill Level

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I spent the last part of my post The Stopwatch Parent¬†stating that I do not like applying the term “Elite” to any youth player ages U15 and below. I have seen these elite teams as a lacrosse official and I do not believe any of them are elite. I came to this opinion not through my travels as an itinerant lacrosse referee or from coaching various youth teams over the years. I developed it at sixteen years old in a jiu-jitsu gym.

I’ve always loved training in different martial arts and I’ve written about some of the lessons I learned on the gym floor, but one of the biggest lessons I ever learned was that I was not nearly as good as I thought I was. I spent two years in the kids/teenagers class learning the basics of kickboxing and jiu-jitsu, but I wanted more. I took private lessons with one of the younger instructors and my technique and skill rapidly improved over a four month period. After those four months I was both a kickboxing and jiu-jitsu force in my young adults class.

My speciality in kickboxing was my rear leg kick and I got so good at turning my hips over that I started leaving bruises on the forearms of my younger training partners even though they were holding four-inch thick kickboxing pads full of absorbent foam. I got so skilled at pulling off my favorite submission, the triangle, that I submitted every other teenage opponent in class every week with variations of that same move. At the end of those four months the head instructor of the gym asked me if I could be mature enough to train with the adults even though I was only sixteen and he typically only let eighteen year olds train with the adults. I told him I would do whatever it took to take on the challenge of training in the adult classes.

Now, I told you that story to prepare you for this story:

When I entered the adult class I immediately realized it was a different beast. Classes were paced faster, went longer, and I was holding pads for adult men. Many of whom were current or retired military and policeman who used kickboxing and jiu-jitsu to stay in combat shape. For the first real time in my life I was challenged physically and mentally as I learned ever more complicated combinations and fighting strategies, but I still thought I was pretty good because my body is built well for kickboxing. I have long legs and shins which gives me a distinct advantage against most opponents, but jiu-jitsu is the great equalizer.

My instructor did not let me roll (wrestle) for two months as I got the feel for the adult classes and the more advanced techniques I was learning. For my very first roll I was paired against a young Japanese man whose nickname was Hurricane in the gym. I was sixteen and he was perhaps twenty-five. At the time I weighed 135 pounds and stood 5’8″. Hurricane might have weighed 95 pounds soaking wet and stood an unassuming 5’1″. Keep in mind that I had been training in the youth classes for two years up to this point, and I thought I was pretty skilled at jiu-jitsu.

I got worked.

I got owned.

I got beat so badly my picture on my new driver’s license swelled up.

Hurricane submitted me about six different times in less than four minutes and it was all I could do to just tap in defeat. I was completely demoralized and stunned. Hurricane wasn’t even an advanced jiu-jitsu practitioner at the time. He was a beginning adult and he had just defeated me in every way I could think of without breaking a sweat.

Even though I had trained for two years at the youth level, as soon as I went up against a regular adult opponent I couldn’t even keep up. It took me a full year of training before I actually tapped an adult with a submission. It took me another year to start regularly tapping the white belts (beginners) and blue belts (intermediate) in class, but it only took me one day to realize that I was by no means “Elite”.

Just because I do not believe in assigning “Elite” and other such labels onto young sports players does not mean that I don’t recognize good skills or don’t praise hard work in mastering those skills. I am all for a young boy or girl finding a passion for any activity that they can get better at and build their self-esteem while practicing the skills in their chosen activity. What all of these kids need to maintain is the drive to get better. I got better at jiu-jitsu precisely because I got beat down when I thought I was awesome, and then I decided to do something about it. If my instructors, parents, and friends told me that, “no, Gordon, you are the best jiu-jitsu practitioner in the gym” every single day no matter what happened to me during my rolls I would have gotten sick of getting beat because the real world I was experiencing was not matching up to the smoke everyone was blowing up my rear end. I probably would have quit before I ever really got started.

This is what I hear at tournaments from some parents and coaches after their Elite U11, U13, or U15 team loses a close game or gets blown out:

  1. “Don’t worry [insert player name], the other team was a bunch of cheaters.”
  2. “If your coach had put you in during overtime we would have won.”
  3. “If the field wasn’t so wet you would’ve dodged by all the kids defending you today.”
  4. “If that awful ref hadn’t made that horrible call in the fourth quarter you would have scored.”
  5. “Our team didn’t do anything wrong. We just came up short.”

Comments 1-4 I hear all of the time, and parents and coaches don’t even realize I’m nearby. It’s as if as soon as the game is over my stripes turn me into the invisible man, which is what I prefer to be before, during, and after a game unless I need to be seen. That power of invisibility lets me easily listen to a lot of conversations that I’m not even trying to listen to. I just happen to be sitting at the table while a parent talks within earshot of me and my partner as they walk off the field.

I can deal with comments 1-4 because for every one parent or coach who says something like that, there are twenty who give useful critiques to their players and don’t come up with pitiful excuses for poor performance. What I really don’t understand though, is #5 – “Our team didn’t do anything wrong. We just came up short.” This is a lie, and it is completely useless. Teams do something wrong every game win or lose.

Telling a bunch of U11 players a long way from home at a travel tournament that they did nothing wrong after getting blown out 11-3 is not helpful! Don’t lie to your team to soothe their egos or boost morale. I assure you, if you explain what you see in a measured and positive manner you can tell your team the truth after every game.

Every youth team I coach gets told a variation of the following:

“I will not judge you for winning, losing, or tying a game. I will judge you on how well you do the little things. Then I will coach you to be better at the little things that you need to work on.”

The little things is what matters in the long run. Do you call out “ball down” when going for a ground ball? Do you yell out “I’m hot” when you are the next defensive slide? Do you alert your wing midfielder to drop further down the line because you think that is where the ball is going on your faceoff? All of these are little,¬†minuscule things that are nothing by themselves. But, when added together within an individual player and then added further with his or her teammates they add up to a team that may not be “Elite”, but certainly has the foundation for creating truly elite players once they move out of the youth age levels.

I think the term “Elite Player” should be saved for those who have put in years of work at a high level in much the same way black belts are presented in jiu-jitsu. On average, it takes a decade to earn a black belt in jiu-jitsu, and you’ll never guess what true black belt jiu-jitsu masters say once they earn that belt. They tell people that they can now start mastering jiu-jitsu! Can you believe that? The black belt is not the end result of a decade of training, it is merely an acknowledgement of years of hard training, dedication and study. The reward is that the new black belt now knows enough about jiu-jitsu to study the intricacies even further and deepen his mastery of his skills.

Let’s reserve the term “Elite” for those that have earned it and stop telling kids that they are the best you’ve ever seen because it isn’t true. What should you tell the kid then? You should tell the young lacrosse player that, “[insert player name] I am very proud of the effort you gave today, and if you really love doing this and want to get better that brick wall looks like a great place to spend fifteen minutes working on your off hand.”

Here is a short video clip from one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes that was part of the inspiration for this post:


Featured Image Credit –¬†www.championsma.us