Youth athletics, including high school sports, serve one major purpose: Getting young men and women to understand that all decisions have consequences. Through the game they learn that hard work, paying attention and following the rules pays off pretty well in terms of individual and team success. While laziness and breaking the rules lends to more unfavorable outcomes.
When you boil down education it really comes down to equipping kids with the necessary skills to navigate a world full of rules, both fair and unfair. Ignorance of the law is no excuse when breaking it, yet we spend very little time educating players about the rules of their chosen sports. Then they are surprised when they are penalized during a game for behavior that was permitted in practice. The player assumes that the rule is unfair and the official is judgmental and quickly assumes the victim mentality of “I didn’t mean it.” Eventually every penalty is never the player’s fault but someone else’s and the victim mentality becomes firmly entrenched. All because the adults in charge never taught the player how the game is played under the constrains of the rules. They just said, “Go shoot, go hit, go pick up that ground ball.”
This observations stands out off the field as well. We teach kids geometry, algebra, trigonometry and calculus. All of which are valuable fields of study, but I haven’t met a high school graduate yet who knows how to balance a checkbook. High school students are expected to write a logical five-paragraph essay but I still get kids emailing me, “Bro, can i Ref this weekend and how much $$$ do I get?!” We teach skills absent of context and real world application.
If you are going to learn anything you must learn the rules governing it, and there are always rules (both official and unofficial). To those of you who do not know what a Mogwai is check out the 1984 movie “Gremlins“. A Mogwai is a very unique creature, but there are three rules that must be followed if you are to care for a Mogwai. They are:
- Don’t put it near light, especially sunlight, it can kill them
- Don’t let it get wet with water nor give it any water to drink nor bathe it
- No matter how much it cries or begs, NEVER feed it after midnight
Simple rules to follow right? Watch the movie and discover the consequences of breaking those rules.
A Mogwai care sheet has three rules, and the NFHS boys lacrosse rulebook has seven. After watching Gremlins no one forgets about how to take care of a Mogwai, but I know players who have played for eight years who still don’t know what Rule 6 in the rulebook is (technical fouls by the way). All because we, the adults, place a greater premium on how to score goals and hit big than how to play the game legally. Then cry foul at the officials when a player commits an illegal act that no one told him/ her how to avoid in the first place.
If we keep up with this backwards way of educating young players by teaching them skills without context all we are doing is raising a bunch of confused soon-to-be adults. There are a lot of pioneering educators who work to buck the system. My old high school physics teacher is one of them. When he taught us about energy he also taught us how electricity powers an air conditioning unit. He explained the basic workings of an air conditioner solely so we wouldn’t be scammed by an unscrupulous A/C maintenance person. I learned about electricity and picked up valuable knowledge for when I eventually purchase a home with central air.
There is a recently graduated defenseman who had a successful career at his local high school because he actually studied the rules and knew how to operate within them. He was a pleasure to officiate because if he didn’t understand why I made a ruling he came up and asked me. Because he knew the rules he also knew when he violated them. Never the victim, he would walk past me as I reported the foul and say, “Good call, my bad there.” I think he will find success in whatever he does because he learns the context along with the skill he is developing.
I can count on one hand the number of players who approached the game like that defenseman. The rest think I’m a judgmental official who doesn’t like them. Guess what? Judging is part of my job description! My partner and I decide what is legal and illegal during the game. The kids that complain are the same ones who go to court on a traffic violation and think the judge is unfair during sentencing. The first group of kids will be just fine, it’s the second group that will have problems.
Rules on the field can absolutely be applied unfairly, but so can rules off the field. It is not enough to think something is unfair, you have to know something is unfair so you can try to do something about it should you be so inclined. The only way you know something is unfair is if you understand the rules.
To that end, here are resources that I hope every player, coach, and parent takes advantage of:
Last bit of advice. When you ask an official something don’t go, “What the heck did I do wrong?” Instead ask, “Mr. Official, could you explain that penalty so I can try to avoid doing it again?” Learning how to ask a question will serve these young kids well when they start asking their college professors questions.