The ideal day in sports offers evenly matched opponents competing from start to finish to the best of their abilities. Reality dictates that those ideal days are not always what we’re given.
The way an athlete, team, coach or program responds when faced with a mismatch can tell as much about character and pride as how an athlete, team, coach or program rises to the task of a challenging game.
Almost always, a team playing a weaker opponent responds with class, compassion, respect and an effort to make the best of it for both teams. Sometimes, though, mismatches end with one team embarrassed.
Rarely is that team the one on the short end of the score.
After Hazen celebrated the first half of its Homecoming soccer doubleheader against Richford with a shameful 14-0 boys soccer victory, it is the Wildcats — the players who celebrated every easy goal, the coach who allowed it to happen, and the school — who should be embarrassed.
It was an opportunity lost.
An opportunity to show grace, instead of a misguided sense of power. To teach teen-agers that respect is important. That there will be times they are on the other end of a hopeless situation. To instill a sense of good will toward others who happen to play for a less-skilled team. To drive home the life lesson that character is not about being better than others; it is about how we treat others.
A team with a 3-6-1 record should, obviously, know better. Perhaps a program that has not won a playoff game in five years seized an opportunity to make itself believe it is better than it is. Beating up on an opponent whose previous games were 6-1, 7-1, 8-0, 6-0 and 6-0 losses does not accomplish that.
Mismatches happen in sports. Most are obvious ahead of time, and if not players and coaches quickly recognize them after action begins.
Good coaches reset their priorities for such games. They get non-starters onto the court or field early enough that they can play all-out without worrying about the score for a while. When the game starts to get lopsided and victory is assured, they find ways to challenge their players and make use of that time. They give their best players the opportunity to cheer on the reserves from the sideline, the way the reserves cheer them on most of the time.
Weak coaches use the mismatch to glorify — or so they think — themselves and their program, when in truth the bullying behavior is an embarrassment to everyone involved. They don’t recognize that they are teaching their players exactly the wrong lessons, about games and about life. They don’t care that they are making a group of perfectly good opponents miserable.
Or perhaps they don’t even see outside their own egos to remember that another team is involved.
When those mismatches come along, it can be a challenge to get something positive out of them. It’s unfair to tell your kids not to try. So the key is giving them something constructive to try. It’s easier in some sports than in others, but no sport lends itself to that worthwhile effort as easily as soccer.
In football, a superior team can’t do much other than run the clock down and use simple, straightforward plays. A basketball team can stop playing aggressive defense while slowing its offense. Baseball and softball players can stop taking extra bases. And so on.
(I once coached a very bad, very fun middle-school basketball team that never came within 20 points of winning a game. One evening we went up against a school team comprised almost entirely of AAU players. Five minutes into the game, the other coach — as competitive a person as exists on this or any planet — knew we were overmatched. She called a timeout and drew up a new offense, one her team had never seen before. That was the only offense they could use, and they could only shoot after running through it perfectly. When they got that offense down, she showed them another. What could have been a 100-20 game was something like 55-20, my team had some extra defensive success because of her AAU team’s unfamiliarity with the system, and the other team had a new offense in its arsenal).
But soccer, The Beautiful Game, offers myriad opportunities to improve awareness and skills without scoring 14 goals.
Starters you need to keep on the field can learn an unfamiliar position. It’s useful for your high-scoring striker with great ball skills to spend some time at sweeper; some day you just might want her back there to protect a one-goal lead. Earlier in the game, when you see a blowout brewing, your sweeper who never gets a chance to play up front can do so (in one game that could have easily surpassed 14-0, a local coach had her team spend the second half trying to set up its keeper for a goal; everyone on the field played hard to the end, and it finished 6-0). A backup who plays eight minutes a game can spend 40 minutes running up front while others try to set him up.
A soccer coach need only be mildly creative to come up with games within the game to challenge a team.
Require your players to make just one touch on the ball, with no dribbling. If they don’t get the ball to a teammate on the first touch, they bang it upfield and you start over. Forty minutes of that, and your players are better prepared for a team that has the skill to not let them take multiple touches.
Require your team to have every player on the field touch the ball once on a possession before taking a shot; if a player gets the ball twice in a sequence, you start over. Everyone on the field suddenly has to think about all 10 teammates, and about doing more than just charging up the field. Your players gain a skill that could be useful against a team that won’t let them just charge up the field.
When it’s 4-0 or 5-0 and you’re playing a team that has scored a total of two goals all season, pick a couple of players on your team who have never had the joy of scoring a goal. Until they do, they are the only ones who shoot. You either won’t score any more goals, or you create the memory of a lifetime for someone who will never make an all-state team. Either way, you accomplish something positive, and your players improve their goal-creating skills.
Hazen’s own student handbook defines bullying “as any overt act or combination of acts … intended to ridicule, humiliate, or intimidate” students. If beating up on a Homecoming guest doesn’t qualify, it comes close.
However embarrassing it is to be beaten 14-0, it’s more embarrassing to win 14-0.