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Soccer Grit and Character Education

Tingley-021 color The final score of the soccer game was Big Kid 3, little kids 0.

The age group is 5-7, but nearly all of the kids are in kindergarten. The coach has to take some of them by the hand and lead them to their place on the field. They are learning the fundamentals of the game, and right now they travel in a small mob up and down the field.  They cry when they are pushed and fall down.  They are mostly unaware of the score.  They do cartwheels while they’re waiting for play to begin.

The Big Kid was 7 and went right to his position on the front line for the opposing team.  He scored all of his goals by himself without any assistance (or interference) from teammates.

Both boys and girls play on the same teams at this level, and some coaches make sure that all the kids, regardless of gender, get to play all the positions and get equal playing time.  Others put all the boys on the front line and all the girls in the back.  The coach this morning did that, and he also left the Big Kid on the front line for the entire game.  

It’s been a long time since I coached little kids’ soccer, but I had to notice how some things haven’t changed. Some coaches, even at the little kid level, recruit before the season begins.  Others work to teach basic skills Kids-soccer to whatever kids they get through the luck of the draw.   One year when I was coaching I accidentally ended up with a pretty good team of 8-10 year olds --- good enough to challenge the coach of the perennial winners that he always cherrypicked.  The score was tied with just a few minutes to go, and that’s when he revealed his true coaching character.   “If you get your foot on the ball, kick it out of bounds as far as you can!”  he screamed. The idea was that he could run down the clock while kids chased down the ball (we had only one game ball).  The game ended in a tie and the kids slapped hands.   I thought about slapping his head.

So it was déjà vu this morning in the drizzle and damp as the Big Kid won his own personal game thanks to another coach who chose winning over character.

Trying to put a positive spin on the game, I thought about Paul Tough's article in last week’s New York Times Magazine.  Tough wonders whether the success and happiness of today’s kids will depend less on performance and more on the ability to deal with failure (when has it not?).   “Our kids don’t put up with a lot of suffering,” one teacher is quoted as saying.  “And when they do get uncomfortable, we hear from their parents.”  So helping kids learn from failure is often a hard row to hoe.

Instead of the usual traits most character education programs identify – kindness, tolerance, honesty, etc. -- Tough describes a new list of desirable character traits adopted by a few private schools.  Based on recent research, those traits include zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity.  It’s a thoughtful, interesting article describing a thoughtful, interesting process a handful of educational thinkers and practitioners have adopted, and it may be useful. (For a parent’s candid take on letting her kids fail I recommend Mellisa Sher’s “Learning by Failing.” Sher’s own blog is Mommalingo.com.) 

I’m a strong believer in character education whatever the target traits, and to my mind all the lists are pretty interchangeable   In the end, however, we teach by example, and the lists and signs and lessons and stories and words taped to the floor pale in comparison so adult examples of those traits or lack thereof.   I wonder what the Big Kid learned today.


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.