PLEASANT GROVE — I used to blame the refs.
What else could I have said to my son standing with a group of his teammates, on the verge of tears, all wearing the same face — as well as the same filthy blue football uniforms?
His team had just been skunked, 27-0. In the rain.
Blaming the refs avoided an emotional nightmare; and instead of dealing with something real, everyone got hyped up for a half an hour and it blew over.
Of coarse the team never got better, and my son learned to blame his problems on someone else, but I didn’t have to deal with the emotion of losing.
I am not advocating that we hand out paperback copies of Mark Twain’s The War Prayer to the boys at the start of the season along with their pads and playbooks. But as a dad, I want to instill a value or two when it comes to winning. And since losing is the other complete half of sports, I had better teach a little something about it.
Placating, as an emotional cork, doesn’t work. Saying something like “It was close” or “You’ll get ‘em next time” seems like filler.
Trying to find something nice to say at any cost, like “Your cheerleaders looked tougher than theirs did,” makes you look out of touch, and "moral victories" are when you didn’t stand a chance and lost by less than everyone thought you would.
“Well, Johnny, as a group, you and all of your friends here are mediocre.” If I said that to the boys after the game, someone would revoke my dad card, and deservedly so.
After eight years of boys football, most of what I know is due to having done its polar opposite. Here's what has worked for me, and what hasn't.
Before the list, ask yourself if you have a relationship of trust where you feel good about giving your boy feedback. If you haven’t developed that in your relationship, as a mom or a dad, then anything deep enough to make a difference may be too deep.
... ask yourself if you have a relationship of trust where you feel good about giving your boy feedback. If you haven't developed that ... anything deep enough to make a difference may be too deep.
Start by developing that relationship. It will help you to know your boy well enough to know how to help him deal with the loss.
For example, my son needs half an hour to complain about everything, including the angle of the fall sun. I don’t argue or try to create a learning environment for that half an hour. That’s his time.
(My time was venting to his mother for the three hours during the game about what I would do if I were the coach.)
I know now that my son being able to vent is his way of dealing. Once he has had a chance to get it off of his chest and once he has had two dozen chicken nuggets with barbecue sauce and a Gatorade, he evens out emotionally and sees more clearly.
When in doubt, go with food.
- Then let him grieve, and be OK grieving with him. He feels bad, and so do you. It’s OK to say it. And when he blurts out “that really sucks,” rather than correct his verbiage or tell him to look on the bright side, agree with him. Yes, it sucked.
- Don’t downplay the loss or say that the loss doesn’t matter. Of course it matters. And if we downplay the importance of the loss, then logically we would have to downplay any win by the same token. If a win matters, then so does a loss. It is what it is. When you win, it feels great. When you lose, it feels lousy.
- Let him know you are proud of him, and tell him why. Did he do something well? Did he keep trying when he was down? Did he give someone a literal hand to help them up from flat on their back? Did he finely find his game socks? There is always something to praise him for. Keep it real. He’ll know when you are stretching.
- Do go over his good moments playing. Let him know that the hole he made for the runner was exactly right, or that his running of the pass pattern was excellent. If he blew a block and let his guy through, acknowledge it as something he won’t want to do again — let him learn.
- Do create little victories. If his team scored more this week than last, if they held the opponent to so many rushing yards, or if there were no penalties — these are good things. Encourage him to take ownership of and joy in the things he can control.
Set smaller goals with him: one more sack than last week, or one more block. My wife pays our son 10 bucks for hitting the other guy flat on his rear, and I consider that 10 bucks well spent.
- Don’t blame the coaches, or the guy running the clock, or the refs for that matter. And don’t support others when they do so. Blaming encourages a state of helplessness by giving all the power to some arbitrary force: the refs, the coaches, the weather, old cleats, grass, artificial turf or what have you. Teach him that if he wants to win the game to win it decisively so that a “bad” call or two (or three) doesn’t matter in the long run.
- Don’t tell him that winning isn’t everything. He has been working more than 25 hours a week for months with a state championship in mind. He eats and snores "team." If you haven’t established a healthy attitude on winning/losing before this point, a speech in the van won’t have a positive influence and may even create distance between you.
Keep your comments, feelings and attitudes positive, and his may come around as well. Good sportsmanship begins with the parents and ends with the parents.
As for a downright, honest-to-goodness mediocre team or talent? Your son’s team may very well be less than state championship material. But that is better discussed when the emotion of this moment has passed, during a drive home from church or while tossing the ball around in the yard. Then you can discuss what he can get out of his team participation other than a trophy.
Whatever you do, don’t tell the boys that they aren’t winners, because that one there, in the filthy blue uniform, is my son. Of course he is a winner. My wife may give me 10 bucks for services rendered if you suggest otherwise.
Main image: Once you've got their attention, teach them right. (Photo: Davison Cheney)
Davison Cheney writes "The Prodigal Dad" series every week on ksl.com. See his other musings at Davison at davisoncheneymegadad.blogspot.com.*