sportsvirtual children by Scott Warnock

Do I always say, “Good game”?

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On that great list of things I think I don’t want to be, near the top is “glib.” I don’t want to be all back slappy, all here’s-a-trophy-even-though-you-didn’t-do-much, all smiling and treacly.

My daughter’s soccer team recently played in one of those excruciating ties. You know, after some ties, you’re kind of glad you made it out in one piece; after others, well, you should have had that one: This was one of the latter. Still, it was a well-played, hard-fought game by both sides.

After the game, one of my favorite athletes, our hard-working, no-nonsense sweeper, was walking off the field, and I nodded to her and several teammates and said, “You played well today.” She frowned and, in a comment typical of her personality, responded, “You know, Coach Scott, you always say that we played a good game.” She didn’t slam the door. She wasn’t being disrespectful. I think she was actually posing a complex question: “Are you really saying we played a good game, which would be a nice thing even though I’m personally frustrated right now, or is ‘good game’ something you just say mechanically all the time, which means your words are meaningless and… glib?”

I’ve watched this team of seventh and eighth graders evolve for years. Most of them I’ve coached at one time or another. This team started out with some success, was ravaged by selfish adults, and then struggled through some lean years. One season, we barely scored (the team parties were based on goal money, so they themselves were lean affairs back then).

But through it all, the players worked hard. Two great guys picked up the coaching. Parents hung in there. Now, they’re a good team, largely built around a core group who went through the lean years. We’ve watched these kids learn to win together and learn about hard work in athletics. We’ll see kids on this team, on their own, taking a run around town or spending time in the local gym. They’ve become athletes. Most importantly, we’ve seen them make this sports thing important to themselves.

They’re easy to root for. Does that mean I’m just an empty windbag, dishing out those “You’re all great!” compliments? Maybe it’s my personality, but I think that the clear path to success, especially for young athletes, is through positive coaching and support.

So when I see them, still far from the pinnacle of their athletic lives at 12- and 13-years-old, I can’t help but see it all as a positive progression forward – even when the game doesn’t end in a win. They make mistakes, but I see effort. And I see that they themselves care about it all. When things don’t go their way, their faces tell the story. They don’t need it narrated by some naysayer in the stands.

So why not be positive, encouraging. and complimentary? I wonder about this in my role as teacher too. Right now I am teaching a marvelous writing course. Each week, I ask the students to write about challenging, difficult topics, and each week, they have raised the bar. I don’t want to slap a virtual gold star on each essay, but I have found myself with fist in the air after reading some of the pieces, just feeling triumphant for the writer’s talent and effort. The students are putting it out there, embracing risk, trying to get better. And on the rare week when they didn’t pull it off, their faces tell the story.

Isn’t that why I do what I do? Why should I feel all glib and insufficient because they are doing well? (And what am I worried about anyway? Although I give very easy reading quizzes, you’ll see on my Koofers and Rate My Professor ratings that despite my fears of being a pollyanna, my students consistently say I’m a tough grader.)

Whether as a coach, teacher, or just supportive parent, I dish out a steady stream of compliments and encouragement. I look for the good. Sure, I think I can help, but the kernel of motivation must rest within my students’ and players’ own hearts. My job, in some way, comes down to motivating them to uncover it. And that’s not a journey filled with insults and disappointment.

Oh, there will be bad days, days in which the effort wasn’t there. But if the interaction is right, we both know. But mainly, we just need to guide them. Believe in them. Tell them they did a good job.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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5 Responses to “Do I always say, “Good game”?”

  1. May I be the first to say, “Good job”, Scott!

  2. “Believe in them” is the key phrase in this entire article, Scott.
    Kids can always tell when we believe in them. You certainly seem to have all of the bases covered in making good people out of these young athletes. Keep believing…I know, from personal experience, it works! So proud of you and your accomplishments!

  3. My daughter and I are doing some tough work right now. She hates it! She fights me verbally every step of the way, telling me “this is stupid, it won’t work”. Twenty minutes after are work is done; she touches my arm and tells me I’m a good mom and that she loves me. She knows I believe in her! That is what children get from years of meaningful “good games”. They know deep down that you do care. They learn to persevere and to have hope.
    Good game, Scott!

  4. “Good stuff” as usual Scott! I had a similar experience when my particular group of 7th and 8th grade girls finally beat a team we have been playing frequently for the last 3 years. We lined up to shake hands after the game where we automatically spout the traditional “good game” as we go down the line. At the end of the line I shook the the team trainer’s hand and he said as he was walking away… “It’s always a good game when you win”. I don’t think he’s right, but it did get me thinking… and I’m still thinking about that one.

  5. Hi Scott- Good points. Striking a balance between loving encouragement and properly placed criticism is hard for parents, coaches and teachers. I want my kids to understand that winning takes work, sometimes really hard work and there are teachable moments in failure. I fear a future generation of little monsters with over-inflated egos because their parents thought pumping up their “self-esteem” was more important than teaching them a good set of values, wisdom, decency and manners. You’re so right about the dedicated coaches for our girl’s soccer team too. I am so grateful to them for hanging in there through thick and thin.

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