The score at the time? 4-3.
Sure, I had a rather ragtag team of players, including one who evidently had never taken part in any organized activity outside the home, let alone soccer. But somehow, my team was keeping this one close.
So his intention was good, but it backfired. Instead of embarrassing these kids with a lopsided score, he was embarrassing them by making it quite clear to everyone within an 800-yard radius that his kids were employing the same tactics they might use against a bunch of toddlers
Why? Well, it helped that his wife was the commissioner. And rec-league commissioners have an irrational exuberance toward parity.
It’s a noble idea. And a handful of sadistic people (or travel coaches, but I repeat myself) are all too content to run up the score. Before the buildout line was employed, some U-9 and U-10 coaches thought they were impressing their team’s parents by putting their kids on the edge of the area so they could pounce on a goal kick from a terrified goalkeeper or defender. Steal, shot, goal -- or another goal kick, repeating the whole process.
And some parents do indeed revel in such routs. During one dreary U-9 game, when a corner kick was awarded late in the game, I heard one parent yell, “Now’s your chance!” It took every ounce of restraint for me not to yell back, “You’re up 6-1 -- how many chances do you need?”
Smart parents know it’s not just an issue of sportsmanship and kindness. Their kids aren’t developing in a game like that. They’d be far better off -- at any age -- calling off the press, letting the other team bring it up and giving their own backline a chance to touch the ball before springing another attack down the field. No one’s developing if your defenders are spectators.
And smart coaches will find interesting ways to develop players. If it’s five goals, and you’re not already rotating players through different positions, do it now. If it’s a 10-goal game, sure, use the weak foot only like the coach in the opening example. (Maybe you don’t need to broadcast it across the field or the tri-state area.) And somewhere in that range, if it’s a rec league that allows (or insists upon) adding a player to the downtrodden side, go ahead.
But when the margin is just three goals, coaches need discretion to respond to the situation. Maybe it’s a U-9 game in which an untrained goalkeeper’s errors are the difference between 2-2 and 5-2. Maybe it’s a U-16 game in which one team is trying to learn a 4-5-1 formation, a lesson that isn’t as easily taught if it’s a 4-6-1. (The alternative, asking the team leading such a game to withdraw a player, unfairly punishes kids for doing well.)
Or maybe the coach is trying to impart a life lesson on adversity. A three-goal deficit is minor compared with the stress of getting a C-minus on that first assignment in an AP course. Teach a kid to fight through the challenge of being overmatched on a soccer field, and maybe she’ll be better prepared to handle that calculus class.
Take an example from a one-on-one competition in which the losing side can’t blame teammates or other factors -- chess. “In How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character,” Paul Tough says of one chess teacher: “As she saw it, her job was not to prevent them from failing; it was to teach them how to learn from each failure, how to stare at their failures with unblinking honesty, how to confront exactly why they had messed up. If they could do that, she believed, they would do better next time. Just like Steve Jobs at Apple the second time around.”
If you want to avoid snowplow-parenting discussions and just want a practical reason to hedge on mercy rules, consider this: Unless you’re living in a rural area that happens to have a soccerplex lying around, your kids don’t have many opportunities to practice on a full field (or half field for U9-U-12). Your Saturday game is their only chance. If the result isn’t in doubt, fine. Now it’s a rare opportunity to practice.
And with that practice, maybe that “next time” the chess teacher mentioned won’t be quite so lopsided.
(Beau Dure is the author of “Single-Digit Soccer: Keeping Sanity in the Earliest Ages of the Beautiful Game” and the host of the podcast “Ranting Soccer Dad.” He coaches and refs youth soccer in Northern Virginia.)