The latter shows the frustration we often see from athletes when the game is already in hand with a playoff berth waiting the winner and a trip home for the loser. What’s sad is that the brief violence on the field — seemingly well handled by the officials, spread to the sidelines and stands. The former is a clip showing a 20-year-old defender from New Mexico bringing the hammer down — literally — to various BYU players has gone worldwide with whole Web sites devoted to either villifying or defending her actions. Some peers in college soccer say she’s only getting this kind of attention because of her gender and that if she were a male, this would not be happening.
I take exception to this, going back to the infamous head butt by French player Zinedine Zidane in the 2006 World Cup contest. His extreme behavior also went viral. It’s not so much the gender as the actions that grab the attention.
Watching the 20-year-old in action, a few things become clear:
1. Her responses were not entirely unprovoked. In the shot of her throwing an elbow into the back on another player you can clearly see she reacting to being elbowed in the stomach. In the instance of her pulling the ponytail of another player, yanking her head back and throwing her to the ground, note that the BYU player is pulling on her uniform. I’m not saying that her actions are justified in any way. But let’s at least give her the benefit of the doubt that she was out to just brutalize other players.
2. There is no clear justification of her punching a player in the face or when she kicks the ball into the face of another player after a teammate has tripped that player. But again, let’s remember, we are seeing clips, not the entire game, so there may or may not have been prior provocation.
3. Given the style of her play, her remorse following her indefinite suspension isn’t easy to completely accept. An aggressive style of play such as she showed takes time to develop — it doesn’t come out just in the “heat of the competition.” I’m thinking some high school and college coaches along her soccer career might know more about this than they have said.
There is plenty of Internet buzz about the two incidents — evolving into a discussion of what we expect of female vs. male athletes and the form of competition we expect of the genders. But what isn’t being talked about here is what I think is the root of the matter: Not that players are getting more aggressive or brazen, but that youth coaches are allowing that behavior at younger levels — all in the name of competition.
Having coached a variety of (male) youth sports for a number of years now, I can say I’ve seen my share of unsportsmanlike conduct in the way some coaches approach a game. In firsthand experience, I’ve seen coaches try to cheat by using the wrong size ball, heard them tell their players to purposefully try to hurt another player, bad mouth officials using colorful language in front of their players and even break out into a fistfight (that was two coaches on the same team …) in the middle of a game. These are sports at the 8- and 9-year-old divisions — not even close to high school age.
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of really good youth coaches out there who every day try to teach the conduct of fair play and good sportsmanship. But I think there is a distinct disconnect in developing good coaches across the board. All you need to be a youth coach is a desire to do the job and the time to be at practice. There is no requisite for experience or moral sense of fair play.
For every youth sport, there are off-season coaching clinics, camps and seminars, but I see few coaches take advantage of these — often because they must foot the bill to attend out of their own pockets. Seldom do I hear of mandatory coaching clinics. Usually, there is one mandatory coach meeting before a season begins. But as a typical example, in Gig Harbor Little League baseball, the mandatory meeting is to go over details about rules and drafting order — everything except good coaching. There is the obligatory speech (usually near the end) about everyone working together for the betterment of the kids, coaching for the players — not for your ego, but you can easily see those good intentions benched early on each season.
I’ve always been a little amazed there isn’t some kind of “coaching” school that youth coaches should be required to pass before being handed their whistle. We require so much of other adults who come into daily contact with our children, such as educators and daycare personnel — yet we are happy to release junior to a virtual stranger for two hours a day over a three or four month period. It’s as if we as parents and those who run leagues are all playing a great big game of Roulette with our children — willing to blindly accept a “bad” coach for a season here and there while wishing for someone better.
Until we modifying the world of youth sports, we shouldn’t find it so surprising to see videos of women soccer players pulling hair and trading punches, upset parents flying out of the stands and sucker punching a ref, or Little League teens going ballistic and head butting an umpire. We are a competitive species living in a competitive society and this sense of competition is drilled into our youth at a very early age. It is unfortunate that in our haste to get the little one to play her best, we are willing to let some unscrupulous coach teach them the underhanded techniques to get that extra edge on the field while masquerading as someone trying to teach them how to properly kick a ball.