Being Aggressive

I coach my kids’ soccer teams – head coach for one, assistant for another. This weekend, one of the teams played a team coached by a hyper-aggressive type who seems to be working out some unresolved childhood stuff through the next generation. There is a rule in this rec soccer league that, when the goalie has the ball — even a finger on it — the other team is to back off. These are 8 and 9 year old girls. The goalie is often in an exposed position, we don’t need kids getting hurt. At one point during the game, one of our girls was bobbling the ball a little bit but still had her hands on it. The girl on the other team kept coming, kicking at the ball, either kicking our player or nearly missing. The opposing coach yelled encouragement to his player: “Way to be aggressive!”

My wife later said it looked like there was going to be trouble between the opposing coach, myself, and our head coach. When we challenged him for encouraging that kind of play, he feigned shock that we would be critical of him encouraging aggressive play. And, hell, who knows, maybe he really didn’t understand that one 9 year old girl kicking at another 9 year old girl, on the ground and focusing on the ball, might lead to unnecessary injury. Or, maybe he didn’t care – because it improved his team’s chances of kicking the ball into the goal. If the ref didn’t call it, then it’s not a foul, right?

There is a cultural divide of sorts among people who prefer a lot of civilized rule following and others who think that all of these protective rules are weakening us, that kids these days are too soft. As a parent, it’s been tough to teach my kids to be kind, sharing, conscientious rule followers on the one hand, then when sporting events come up, try to teach them to be rougher and more selfish – with the added ambiguity of being as physical as the rules allow — which always seems to be slightly beyond the amount of contact that the rulebook contemplates.

That opposing coach is, there is no doubt in my mind, of the school of thought that says kids these days are being made too soft. And, yet, I am sure that if I had walked up behind him and clubbed him over the head with a brick, he would have taken offense. And, if I’d explained afterward that I was just being aggressive that he should thank me for making him tougher, I doubt he would have been mollified. Personally, I’ve always been willing to play games as aggressively or unaggressively as the rules permit. I just want the rules to be clear in advance and everyone to play by the same rules. If we’re playing a friendly game, that’s great. If we’re playing a game where I can replace you with a smoking crater, that’s cool too. It’s when people break the spirit of the rules in a plausibly deniable way that I start feeling stabby and indignant.

Thing is, people behave this way because they get away with it. Cheaters absolutely prosper. Turning this to a legislative focus, the curious case of Rep. Turner comes to mind. Even if we find that his lobbying activities fall within the letter of the General Assembly’s ethics rules, I doubt they were within the spirit. But, hey, he was just being aggressive right? Think he made his millions by working hard and playing by the rules? Or did he make them by aggressively riding the edge of the rules in a plausibly deniable way?

In any event, it’s not rocket science – at the end of the day, we as a society will get more of the behavior we reward.


  1. Andrew says

    Another reason to loathe basketball, soccer, hockey, or any other sport where contact rules are almost completely subjective.

    However, “sneaking in a shot” is also what thrills fans of these games…so forget I said anything :)

    • says

      I have often asked coaches the hypothetical question:
      “If all officials could be replaced with automated systems that were 100% accurate, would you prefer this?” and the universal answer has been a resounding “NO!”
      I wish someone could help me understand why this is. To me, this would allow the best team to win and reduce the randomness and unfair parts of the sport. It seems like to the people I’ve asked, though, that they want the ability to cheat and consider this to be as much of a part of the game as anything.

  2. says

    If you want to add to the lesson of youth sports and Rep. Turner, it’s that even if everyone is playing what appears to be the same sport, that doesn’t mean everyone is playing the same game.

  3. Freedom says

    “When we challenged him for encouraging that kind of play”

    There should have been no “we.” Just you, just him.

    Don’t let your girls play sports. Far too often, I’ve seen sports strip young women of their feminine graces. You don’t want to raise a daughter who, in 19 years, has the nickname “coach.” If they must play sports, Tennis provides excellent skill and fitness and exposes them to the right sort of participants.

    Perhaps most importantly, you’re coaching youth sports? Are you nuts? You’re an attorney. You know how easily one annoyed kid or one disaster of a mom looking for a scapegoat can ruin your life, overnight.

    Don’t think you’re safe because you’re “one of them.” Your hardcore Liberalism won’t save you. There’s an entire system built to ruin men. You’re merely fuel.

    Have them learn ballet dancing, the flute, foreign language, or some other activity that best suits their innate feminine talents.

    • says

      Thanks for the friendly advice, but I’ll raise my daughter as I see fit. My daughter, like all children, will not lack for things to criticize about my choices. But I’ll let her decide which choices to criticize in the fullness of time.

      As for the “we” – it’s not that either of us conferred with the other; we just reacted the same way at the same time to the opposing coach.

      And I’ll take my chances with the potentially disgruntled kids and mothers. Despite the inflammatory manner in which you raised it, the concern of being scapegoated or wrongly accused about something is not one which has escaped me. As an adult male, I’m very conscious about not being alone with other people’s kids. It’s a shame that predators real and imagined have brought us to the point where I feel like I need to be careful in that respect. But, it’s not going to stop me from coaching my kids.

  4. Chris O. says

    In my experience (7 years coaching high school), the aggressive coaches are the ones that don’t know how to coach the sport. They haven’t a clue how to make kids better players. Improvement should only be a secondary goal for a rec league team anyway. Nope, just make it fun and get them to stick with the sport.

    The studies I’ve seen say kids don’t have a sense of win or loss until about age twelve. There are exceptions, of course: when a parent or coach instills that sense in them. I’ve seen high school kids break down on the field because of the pressure their coach put on them.

    Interesting perspectives on coaches here. In terms of win/loss, I just cared that the girls or boys played to their potential. The pressure of winning and losing was for me and how well we prepared them, not for the kids.

    Automated officiating? No computer can determine advantage in play and thus hold a whistle, or make a judgment call on a yellow or red card. No thanks. At a younger recreation level, though? Absolutely. Finding refs is always difficult.

    Finally, four of my years of coaching high school were with a girls team. I saw that team blossom and become more than the sum of its parts. It was a positive, confidence-building experience and I saw nothing to justify Freedom’s interesting concerns.

    Based on everything I’ve seen you write about coaching, Doug, I’d say you’re better qualified to coach these kids than I am. When it comes to soccer, I’m just too —- competitive.

    • says

      Regarding automated officiating: It is already accepted at some professional levels for things like tennis. My question is mostly hypothetical today, but I would think that cameras & sensors on everything from gloves to the ball would one day make objective the subjective things like fouls and holding. The only thing that a human may never be surpassed at would be things like a technical foul for inappropriate behavior/language.
      But, leave your doubt of the technology behind for a minute & consider an automated official that can determine every black and white call there is with 100% accuracy. Would you want this? If not, why not?

      • Freedom says

        Automated officiating makes sense in Tennis, because it’s a dead overhead shot. It’s only available on a few challenges a game.

        Sensors in gloves would be the zenith of gayness, never mind impractical. If I’m playing First, I’ll just good at smacking my glove, never mind when the ball gets there.

  5. Mary says

    Oh, comes to mind when my sone, now an adult, was about 7 years old, playing on a soccer team coached by 2 fathers of classmates. These two guys were friends and therefore, I suppose, reinforced the best and worst in each other. I will not forget the day I learned that kids’ sports are not for kids. The team lost, my child’s play contributing to the loss. The sight of two grown men flopping around on the ground, pounding the turf with their fists and kicking it with their feet was a sight to behold, and one I did not give myself the opportunity to behold again.

  6. Freedom says

    “I will not forget the day I learned that kids’ sports are not for kids.”

    True words. There really are no such things as “kids sports.” From the PGA to the NFL to the Tour de France to NASCAR, adults have far more power and motor skills than children. Sports are adult activities that children try to emulate, often for the reflected glory of their parents.

    Soccer is lately being pushed as a liberal social agenda and liberal inculcation, far more than it is played as a real sporting activity.

  7. Freedom says

    “Improvement should only be a secondary goal for a rec league team anyway.”

    Not in mens’/boys’ sports. I played sports. In every league I played in, it was clear that there was a direct line from our practice field to the pros. When I see a NCAA or Pro practice field, I see the same intensity, and most of the same exercises, that I had in youth sports. Only the skill level changes.

    “The studies I’ve seen say kids don’t have a sense of win or loss until about age twelve.”

    Not where I’m from. 12 is actually pretty far along.

    The military loves youth sports. Think about that.

    • says

      It’s pretty clear that my kids, sharing my genetics, aren’t going to be making a living from athletics. I told my son, “you’re never going to be the biggest or the fastest, so you’d better work on being the smartest.”

      • Freedom says

        “You’re never going to be the biggest or the fastest”

        That matters most in Basketball and Football. Sadly, smartest isn’t the best advice, either. It turns out that the most persistent and the most indifferent to others get what they want.

        • says

          There’s definitely some truth to that. I’m not going to encourage my kids to be sociopaths, but there is no denying that some of the most successful (depending, I suppose, on how one measures “success”) have traits associated with sociopathy – e.g. antisocial behavior, diminished empathy, and a lack of inhibitions.

          • Freedom says

            I recently read an abstract of an academic paper on this very subject. At least it’s an answer to the eternal non sequitur “If you’re so smart, how come you’re not rich?” Turns out, the dull, unimaginative and single-minded persistent types more often get what they’re after.

            Let your girls be chaste and virtuous. Turn your boy into a sociopath. He’ll enjoy the company of lots of women. Call it a retirement plan.

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