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The Crippling Effect Of High Self-Esteem

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When I started elementary school two major things were developing in the world. Coming home from school one day I discovered that the family computer now had an internet connection. That was the more obvious change. The change that took me many years to see was that high self-esteem for children was slowly gaining greater importance than teaching children to deal with disappointment and strive to be better. The idea is that increased self esteem leads to greater achievement because the individual should feel better about themselves. Having worked with young kids for the past 10 years, I consider putting high self-esteem before achievement one of the worst wide-ranging social experiments for developing children.

The dictionary definition of self-esteem is “a¬†feeling of having respect for yourself and your abilities.” I believe we should teach young kids to have respect for themselves as a unique individual, but the second part of the definition is where I’ve seen problems. The idea that I should feel good about my abilities in anything despite solid evidence to the contrary confuses me.¬†This idea filtered into sports with the “everyone gets a trophy” idea. Even if a player was terrible they got a trophy! Most of the average and below average players kept getting trophies until realizing at an older age that they were not very skilled.

I scored a goal against my own team in my soccer league when I was 5. It was the last game of the season and I got turned around on the field. I tore through my teammates as they stood wondering what I was doing and kicked the ball into the net. My parents told me that I was so excited to score my first goal that none of the coaches or parents had the heart to tell me that I sealed my team’s loss. I got a trophy, but I was 5. I barely knew what sport I was playing, and I definitely didn’t know which direction to run to. This had little to no effect on me. I kept playing soccer, tried baseball and swim team, but eventually landed on lacrosse as my go to sport.

I have no problem giving trophies to kids U9 and below for participating for a whole season. I think committing to a full season of their chosen sport is a good lesson for little kids to learn, and a trophy for showing up is good positive reinforcement. Above U9 is an entirely different story.

U11, U13, and U15 kids know who is good, who is okay, and who is bad. Giving trophies to every kid at the end of the season cheapens their knowledge that one team is definitely the best, and some players are better than others. This is not to say that little Johnny is a better person than little Timmy, but that little Jimmy is a better lacrosse player than little Timmy.

Trevor Tierney recently posted “The ‘Best Team’ May Not Be What Is Best For Our Kids” on his blog. He asserts that adults should not rush to create the “best” or most dominate team in an area simply so their players can have the best winning percentage. This is best illustrated by the fracturing of select travel teams at every age level in Georgia. In 2005-2006 there was exactly one travel team in Georgia, but that was a function of the times. As the sport grew it made more sense for there to be travel teams based off geographic location so players didn’t have to travel 2 1/2 hours just to practice. Unfortunately, the drive to give kids better self-esteem through cheap wins has diluted Georgia travel teams (also travel teams across the nation. This is not a one-state phenomena).

Some parents got frustrated when their player’s travel team didn’t post enough wins or hoist a plastic tournament trophy. So splinter groups formed and kids who had years of playing experience were loaded onto teams and scheduled in “B” division tournaments while their worst player could start on any “A” division team in the state. Predicable scored followed: 22-0, 15-3, 25-5 game scores started cropping up more and more in the various youth games I officiated over the course of a year. The parents did this for two reasons: One, the parents wanted to be a part of a winning culture as soon as possible and without putting in the years of effort it takes to get to that point. Two, parents wanted their kids to feel good, which means winning games, and what better way is there than stacking a bunch of U13 players together to play against kids who just learned how to hold a the lacrosse stick? I’ve reffed these games, and it is more than a little demoralizing to watch.

These parents miss the point of athletics. There are times when when one team is going to dominate another. My old high school Pace used to crush some teams. We considered those games “taking care of business,” not “business as usual,” and our coach regularly worked the less experienced players into those games. I rarely enjoyed those blowout victories. Sure they were fun, but the pride in the win didn’t stick around for long. Oddly enough, I have more positive memories from our loses to Westminster in my three years at Pace. My senior year I remember losing to Westminster 4-3, or 5-4. More importantly to me was that both teams came to play and it was one of my best performances as a player I ever had. We lost, but it didn’t destroy my self-esteem. I was more proud of how my teammates and I played in that loss than how I played in every blowout victory my team had that year.

Trevor’s final sentences from his post state: “Instead of finding a better team to play on, find a way to make your team better. This is how you can truly learn to win something of lasting value through the sports.” I have learned far more from losing games than winning them. Most players will have blowout victories at some point in their careers, but the win matters far less than the road to get there. Consider that Peyton Manning currently has an 11-11 playoff record. He is mathematically average in the playoffs, but I would challenge anyone out there to say he is not one of the greatest QB’s of all time (and don’t tell me that he left to another team. Archie didn’t trade him to the Broncos so that argument is moot!). The way he plays the game is more important than his ultimate win/loss record. That is a lesson all adults in youth sports should take to heart.

If you want your child to play a youth sport so they can win lots of games you will always be disappointed because there is always another team out there with more wins. Find a program near you that you like and don’t leave just because the team doesn’t win enough games. Is your kid improving? Is your kid having fun? Those are the questions you should ask yourself when thinking about moving to another team.

As a coach, I want a player who has experienced losing. I don’t like spending time teaching a U15 player who lost a close game that the world hasn’t ended. We all want to win, but losing is a part of life so it is definitely going to be a part of your kids playing experience. If you want to build their self-esteem by seeking out the dominate team two hours away so they can never lose then I say you are crippling your child because they will lose in the future and they won’t have losing experiences from childhood sports where they learned how to deal with it.


Seven Deadly Sins of Lax

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The Seven Deadly Sins were originally refined by 4th century monk Evagrius Ponticus. These sins are most famously known in Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy,” which follows Dante as he is lead through Hell, Purgatory, and finally Heaven by the poet Virgil. They are, in order:

  1. Lust
  2. Envy
  3. Greed
  4. Sloth
  5. Wrath
  6. Pride
  7. Gluttony

By now you are wondering why I am posting on such a gloomy topic as the Seven Deadly Sins. The reason is that each of them can be applied to lacrosse in very specific ways. If a player avoids these vices in practice and games they will be well prepared for life outside of lacrosse. Here is how each sin prevents a player from reaching his potential:

  1. Lust – “Excessive thoughts and desires” can muddle the mind. Every player desires to become the next All American, the next State Champion but do not let these thoughts define every fiber of your being. Strive for balance as you work towards your goals but do not let them consume you to the exclusion of all the other parts of your life.
  2. Envy – “The desire to deprive a man of theirs” is a common feeling. How many of us, especially after the holidays, look at a teammates brand new Brine gloves and want them for our own? Remember, no matter how expensive a pair of gloves are they do the exact same thing as bargain gloves. If you are envious of someone be envious of their skills on the field and work to develop your own because no one can deprive you of the skills you have developed.
  3. Greed – “A sin of excess” that corrupts any person. There is a saying “what does a person in power want? More power.” This is a difficult thing to apply to sports where every day you work to increase your game. The difference lies in how you go about improving yourself. Are you practicing solely to embarrass another player with your slick dodge or do you have an honest goal to help your team? Approach your training with the goal of helping your teammates not to solely enrich yourself.
  4. Sloth – “The failure to utilize one’s talents and gifts” is the crime. Are you working hard or hardly working? Sloth, by definition, is inaction. The conscious desire to not do what you are capable of doing. Remember your teammates and your coach count on you even during the offseason. 10-15 minutes a day, at minimum, practicing with your stick will keep your from committing the sin of laziness.
  5. Wrath – “Uncontrolled feelings of hatred or anger” are extremely dangerous to proper thought. In fact psychologists have found that “persons with a predisposition to anger and aggression have been found to have decreased activity in [the prefrontal cortex]” (psychiatryonline.org). Anger can actually prevent you from thinking clearly. Unfortunately there are plenty of opportunities for anger in games. Practice channeling your anger into positive actions on the field. Instead of “I’m going to slash that guy next time” try “I’m going to burn him with my best dodge.”
  6. Pride – “Excessive love of self” may just be the cause of all the other vices. We all know the verse “pride goeth before destruction,” and it is true that excessive hubris and the belief that you cannot be touched is a familiar story in professional sports. Humility is a highly underrated virtue and there are few things more unnerving than a player who never says a word about how good he is but owns everyone of the field in every game.
  7. Gluttony – “Over-consumption of anything to the point of waste” is the bane of a serious athlete. The night before your next game go ahead and pig out. I’m serious eat a whole pizza, drink a lot of soda, and scarf down a few slices of cheesecake. What you don’t want to do that? I thought as much. What you eat affects how you feel and how you play. Practice moderation and you will find yourself light on your feet.

If you’ve never read Dante’s “Inferno” I highly recommend it. It will give you a good appreciation for how seriously the Seven Deadly Sins were taken in the 14th century.

To all the youth players reading this do not be alarmed or scared. Nobody is perfect and I’ve committed each of the Seven in my short twenty two years. What is important is that you recognize if you screw up and change your behavior because I guarantee that your coach will recognize any time you stray too far into the Seven Deadly Sins of Lacrosse – and bench you.