Categorized | Youth Sports

When Winning Isn’t Everything

By Danny Kanamori

One more win. That’s all the Cyclones, a soccer team of 10-year-old girls from Cypress, Calif., needed to earn a trip to the 2009 state championship in Davis. But they lost, and all they could do was cry. The team’s head coach, Bernadette Arizmendi, tried to remind them of all they had accomplished during the season, but this was the team’s first real disappointment and they weren’t easily consoled.  As Arizmendi looked to the opposite sideline, she expected to see the team that won, the Huntington Park Eagles, celebrating. But they were crying, too.

Ken Spira, the commissioner of American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) 154 region that the Cypress Cyclones represented, pulled Arizmendi aside to tell her that the families from Huntington Park couldn’t afford the trip to Davis and her team was going to play for the state championship. As the news spread to the Cyclones’ sideline, the girls quickly shifted from tears to cheers. Arizmendi, who only started coaching so that her daughter Desiree could play on the team, went home and thought about it. She couldn’t help but feel uneasy. It wasn’t fair, she thought. Cypress was a privileged community where money would never get in the way of such an opportunity. Without consulting anyone, she decided to do something about it.

Arizmendi started a campaign to raise money for the families from Huntington Park, so that the team could make the trip to Davis. She wrote to everyone on her contact list, companies like Nike and Adidas, and various media outlets in Cypress. Within days, KIIS 102.7, a popular Los Angeles-based radio station where Ryan Seacrest hosts the morning show, called Arizmendi to say it would help. After Seacrest aired Arizmendi’s story, the radio station commissioned a bus, booked a hotel, donated a $1,000 in spending money (in addition to the $400 that Arizmendi raised) and the girls from Huntington Park were on their way to play in state championship.

Arizmendi had to deal with critical parents, who thought she was stripping a wonderful opportunity away from their daughters, and a deflated team, where only a few days earlier the girls couldn’t stop talking about playing for a state championship. But they soon realized that Arizmendi did it for them as much as for the other team.

“When I found out that the Huntington Park girls couldn’t go, I thought that we could go,” said Samantha Brown, one of the Cyclone players. “But then I thought again. Well, they won, they beat us fair and square, so they should be the ones that should go.”

Winning was important, but not at all costs. Learning how to lose was just as important.

The NCAA defines sportsmanship as a “set of behaviors to be exhibited by athletes, coaches, officials, administrators and fans (parents) in athletic competition. These behaviors are based on such fundamental values as respect, fairness, civility, honesty, and responsibility.” While the NCAA deals with athletes at the collegiate level, many parents, coaches and administrators think these principles need to be enforced at a younger age.

The most common showings of poor sportsmanship in youth sports are much like what is seen at the professional levels. Fred Engh, the founder of the National Alliance for Youth Sports, referred to studies that revealed “Almost half of all youth sport participants (45.3%) have been yelled at or insulted; 21 percent have been pressured to play while injured; 17.5 percent have been hit, kicked, or slapped; and 8 percent have been pressured to intentionally harm another player.”

In a 1997 study called “Fair Play for Kids,” Sandra Gibbons, professor at the School of Exercise Science, Physical and Health Education at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, and Vicky Ebbeck, associate professor and the Co-Director of Sport and Exercise Psychology Laboratory at Oregon State University, analyzed the effects of moral development in youth sports. Focusing on five principles – respect the rules, respect officials and their decisions, respect your opponent, give everyone an equal chance to participate, and maintain your self-control at all times – the researchers placed fourth and fifth graders in three curriculum groups. The first group emphasized fair play in physical education and the classroom. The second group emphasized fair play in physical education only, and the last, the control group, would have no fair play curriculum. After the seven month experiment, Gibbons and Ebbeck tested the groups and “the two treatment groups scored significantly higher on four measures of moral development than the control group, but no significant differences were found between the two treatments.” Not only were those who learned better sportsmanship better equipped for making better decisions, but they were just as equipped as those who were also taught to play fair in the classroom.

Conversely, those who don’t learn to play fair have a tendency to show bad sportsmanship. In another case study, Jay Goldstein, a doctoral student from the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Maryland, points out that psychologists distinguish between two “orientations” when it comes to sportsmanship, ego orientation and task orientation.  To those with dominating “ego orientations,” winning is achieved by all means and at all costs, even if it means cheating or hurting their opponents.  Those with strong task orientations will “enter competition to continually improve their skills.” Goldstein’s research also said that youth sports have many youngsters with dominating egos. Goldstein pointed out that “84 percent of teenage soccer players reported that they would deliberately foul an opponent to keep her or him from scoring.”

Jonathan Fial, a 7th grade basketball coach in Bergen County, New Jersey has seen this first hand. One of his players, he said, has recently developed into one of the better basketball players on the town traveling team – a competitive league where the goal is to win. As the player, whom he would not identify, improved, he became more competitive and developed bad sportsmanship habits, including ruining team-building drills in practice, opting to shoot rather than pass, and refusing to go into the end of game when his team was up by a lot, saying “don’t embarrass me.”

The player, whom Fial has known since he was 3, never had problems when he was younger. But Fial said he’s seen the recent bad habits transfer off the court. The youngster and a group of classmates, bullied another student, ostracizing the classmate from group events. Fial said he and some parents corrected the situation. “Without a doubt, sportsmanship absolutely affects the type of person they become in life after sports,” said Fial.

For the coaches who are having trouble with sportsmanship initiatives, many recreational departments have asked youth training organizations, like the SUNY Youth Sports Institute and the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS), for help. They have programs that train volunteer coaches, league administrators, volunteer officials, parents and professional administrators, and their focus relies on good sportsmanship.

“We teach coaches how to help kids believe and understand how they can master anything,” said Tim Donovan, director of the SUNY Youth Sports Institute. “We’re not that interested in them becoming great athletes at all.”

Greg Bach, the NAYS vice-president of communications, agrees with Donovan. “Youth sports is about kids having fun, being part of a team, teamwork, winning and losing with grace,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you take away the competitive edge from a child. You want them to do their best every time on the field, you want them to have good results, but we don’t preach winning. We preach doing your best.”

Michael Crotty, the director of the basketball AAU program, the Middlesex Magic, based out of Belmont, Mass., meets before every season with all his potential coaches, many of them parents. He stresses that the younger groups (third grade through sixth grade) are about having fun, working hard, and getting better. If he sees a coach taking the games too seriously, he gets rid of them before they damage to kids and his program.

While Crotty said he hasn’t noticed an increase in bad sportsmanship at the youth level, there are lingering questions about how much sportsmanship has become less of a priority.

Certainly, it existed in the case involving the Huntington Park Eagles. Three weeks after Arizmendi raised the money, her assistant coach, Hugo Bustamante, died. The group of girls from Cypress now had to deal with a different kind of loss. As the girls made their way to the funeral, the Huntington Park team surprised them. The entire team, all of them in their soccer jerseys, attended Bustamante’s funeral. Arizmendi was touched, inspired and proud.

These were “fifty girls in soccer jerseys,” said Arizmendi, “who learned to give back.”

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