When Good Sportsmanship Doesn’t Make the Cut

“Nice guys finish last.”

CIMG4418It stings to be the parent of the kid whose primary objective was “to be a good teammate” as she is cut from the high school JV squad. Why does it hurt so much? Because, for her whole life you have been teaching her that sportsmanship is the main thing. Surely what the team needs is a good teammate.

Until it isn’t.

Talent is what they really need. And ability, field vision, speed, power, strength, skill. Now we’re looking for these, the coach says. Thanks for coming.

It’s this transition that parents in America are having trouble coming to terms with: when talent overtakes sportsmanship in the rankings, we become liars. Oh, sportsmanship counts for something but really, provided you don’t tick off the coach or start a fistfight with your teammates, if you’ve got game, you’re on the team.

What do I say to my kid then?

First, we need to have a talk with ourselves. Have we been lying?

Sportsmanship does count. Hard work does count. Effort does count. But so does ability, and increasingly so as they get older. On teams that compete, we celebrate success. A winning outcome is what we’re looking for, and there is an unequal distribution of athletic talent out there. At some point we start selecting for ability.

Yes, all of our kids will get better with concentrated effort and dedication to the task, but the reality is: some kids are stronger athletes and they will outshine our kid in performance. We need to have this conversation. In fact, it is essential, if our kid regularly gets walloped on the field. Athletically, son, they’re better than you.

Have we had that conversation with our kid?

Or have we delayed or set it aside in favor of Just be a good sport, that’s what counts. We do this, hoping to preserve their self-esteem and praying that a few more years, a bit more practice and a heaping helping of maturity will make things all better.

When it doesn’t, they feel bad and we feel worse. Why does it hurt so much? Because they’re learning the world’s way before we could break it to them gradually. We thought we could shield them from it forever, but we can’t. Sport is a proving ground that reveals it all. Better to prepare them, so they can brace themselves.

Sweetheart, the truth is, you’re not as good at soccer as she is. Buddy, you’re not as good at basketball as he is. Here’s the kicker: Honey, no matter how hard you try, you won’t be as good at this game as they are.

If that will be too discouraging for them, then maybe just say it to yourself. Admit it, then let him figure it out for himself. Sign him up, take him to practice, and by all means let him try out, because not being selected may be the most important lesson they’ll ever learn. If they’re truly good sports and team players, they’ll accept the decision gracefully. Perhaps they’ll choose another sport, another team or another activity. The really grounded kids may even go and watch the games of the team they didn’t make.

Parents are the ones who have the most trouble with “my kid got cut.” Can we be the “good sport” we have been raising our kids to be?

If we can, we’ll admit that selection is a process, accept the decision and move on. If our kid is still motivated, he may use being cut to work harder on his game and try out again next year. But let’s not tell him that his effort will surely get him on the team. That’s not how it works, is it?

We know that and we owe it to our kids to talk about it when they’re old enough to understand. We owe it to ourselves so we don’t keep imagining that our efforts on their behalf should really get them on the team. If they haven’t earned it, they don’t deserve it.

The good news is, their getting cut from the team opens up new doors through which they can now walk with new humility and better self-awareness. If I’m not good enough for that, what about this?


Photo by Chas Sumser Photography

Those other kids – the ones who made the JV team – some of ’em won’t make Varsity. And some of them won’t make the college team. Only a few will get drafted into the pro’s. Some of them – most of them – will never make a living at playing pro ball, so they’ll be journeymen, shifting from team to team, hoping for the break that never comes. They may make a living, but what kind of life is that?

Hey, your kid is lucky if he is learning early that he was meant to excel at something else. To this new endeavor he may just take that “best teammate” approach right to the bank.

Some kids, the good kids, but not the best kids, take a lot longer to learn that there is always someone better than you are. Even if you’re a world champion, some day you will be unseated. That’s a hard pill to swallow. It requires humility and perspective they may never have developed because they have always known they are the best. Until they’re not.

That’s a defining moment for our kids. When they hear you didn’t make the team, it stings because it does mean that there are kids who play the game better. It defines them when they can honestly say, there is more to me than the game.

We all need to learn that lesson at just the right time. That’s a parents’ job. To keep it real, and let life in at just the right pace. That’s not defeat. That’s power. Talk about self-esteem!

Hey, we all know that nobody makes a competitive team just by being a good teammate, but who would you rather have at your dinner table?

Happy Thanksgiving. Beautiful table with thanksgiving food

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