Friday 22 September 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: It's not always about winning

Eamonn Sweeney

This time last month Aledo High School played Fort Worth Western Hills in the Texas 4A high school football championship. Aledo won 91-0 and the reaction of one of the Western Hills parents was to make a complaint against Aledo coach Tim Buchanan under the state's anti-bullying legislation.

Buchanan had to endure a mandatory investigation by the school district before being found not guilty of bullying. He had, after all, brought on a slew of replacements after his side ran up a 56-0 half-time lead. But the case has received national media attention in the US where, in the words of Sports Illustrated executive editor L. Jon Wertheim, the anti-bullying lobby is "one of the country's most powerful movements . . . bully has become the lowest designation in our lexicon".

My first reaction, and I suspect yours, is probably that this is the kind of thing which could only happen in America. But then I looked at the 91-0 scoreline and wondered if a hammering like that is really necessary.

A random glance at a few results will usually reveal some similar annihilations in this part of the world. In my own West Cork backyard, I can see that Tadhg MacCarthaigh beat St James by 4-26 to 0-2 and that Muintir Bháire beat Béal átha'n Ghaorthaidh 10-14 to 1-8 in the under 14 football championship. In the under 12 Schoolboys FAI Cup, Johnstown beat Donnycarney Celtic A 13-0 and Bonagee United beat Illistrin 12-1. And, before the rugby people get all smug, CBC's 60-0 victory over St Munchin's and Crescent College's 56-5 whaling of Castletroy in the under 15 McCarthy Cup B competition probably weren't nailbiters either.

For all I know, the managers involved may have done everything within their power to keep the score down. Things have probably changed from the days of my youth when teams who were winning underage games by 40 points or 12 goals would very reluctantly bring on a sub with five minutes left while their mentors urged them to heap humiliation on the opposition.

Back then emptying the bench was rarely an option and sometimes this had seriously detrimental effects on the morale of the victims. I can remember one rural club deciding to enter a team into the Sligo Schoolboys under 13 league and losing their first match 14-0. They lost their second 15-1 and before the end of the season had stopped fulfilling their fixtures, never to be seen in the competition again.

Our local soccer club entered the same league that season with my father as manager. At first they found it tough to deal with more experienced teams from Sligo town whose first game was soccer rather than Gaelic football. I remember a 9-1 loss and a 6-0. Yet they stuck at it and by end of the season had reached a Connacht semi-final. The following year they lost 2-1 to the team who had beaten them 9-1. The year after that we beat them 3-1.

And that is, I suppose, why I think the parent from Western Plains was probably a bit quick on the trigger. Because while some kids are destroyed by a succession of humiliating defeats, there are also youngsters who learn from them, look at their tormentors and catch a glimpse of what might be if they work hard and improve.

There are those who'd argue that the last thing children should be doing in sport is working hard and that their sole focus should be on enjoyment. And while a heavy defeat may be character-building it probably isn't enjoyable. So perhaps there is a case to be made for the sporting bodies bringing in some sort of maximum margin which, when reached, signals the end of the official game and perhaps a chance for the strong team to loan the weak team a few players.

The onus in this situation is always on the coaches. Anyone who's ever been involved at underage level knows that youngsters relish the opportunity of piling the agony on the other team. Adult players generally ease off but the young lad or girl tends to be implacable in the pursuit of their sixth goal.

It's the coach who must ask whether anyone is really going to benefit from a 30-point winning margin being turned into 33 points. He is the one who can halt the scenario of the under 14 'keeper who is unable to kick the ball past the prematurely hairy giant midfielder so that the match degenerates into a nightmarish game of backs and forwards. Or that uniquely humilating feature of the soccer shellacking, the trooping en masse of the losers towards the centre circle for the 12th or the 13th time. There's no need for it.

Or is there? Because I know there are people involved in underage coaching who would find me absurdly tender-hearted on this point. I can remember myself that there was a group of young lads in Castlehaven who at under 12 and under 14 level rarely won a game and suffered some very heavy defeats indeed. Yet these players actually went on to win a county under 21 title and several of them have won county senior medals with the club. So perhaps there are valuable lessons which can be extracted from defeat, no matter how severe, if you have the right coach.

Losing is part of life too. And the notion that kids must be protected from the competitive side of sport, because they'll feel bad if they lose or if someone better is picked ahead of them, may be misguided. Because there are times in most of our lives when we have to face the fact that we're losing, times when you kick the ball out and it comes straight back at you, times when the opposition is so strong the contest seems impossible. We can learn a lot from sport but one important thing it teaches us is how to cope with defeat and disappointment.

Perhaps the worst sporting performance of my life came in my first cross-country event. I was lapped and so was every other member of my team. We were lucky not to be lapped twice. Yet within two years we had won Connacht and Regional Schools titles and competed at All-Ireland championships in both track and cross-country.

We did so because we had a fantastic coach, a man named Pádraig Callaghan. And one of the things I remember most is that after our utter humiliation on the killing fields of Taughmaconnell, we laughed and joked all the way back

home and couldn't wait for the following week's race. Because we enjoyed the sport so much the result was beside the point. In the long run results matter less than the way you're taught to experience the sport.

I can also remember a youth soccer team of the time. When we played them my brother would always say, "I see they have the Japanese lad playing with them again. You know. Yafukkeneejacha." We saw their manager one time reduce a player to tears, take the jersey off him and make him walk back to the car on a freezing day because he'd disobeyed an instruction. The team, as could be expected, were as grim in victory as the Boyle AC cross-country team were happy in defeat.

It all depends on the coach. A coach or manager has the chance to influence the lives of those kids like very few other people have. Because, a quarter of a century later, not a week goes by when I don't feel a burst of happiness at the memory of my running days. Pádraig Callaghan gave me that and it's quite a gift. Every coach can give that gift to someone.

Maybe the lads from Western Plains will recover from that 91-0 after all. The fact that their coach, John Naylor, praised them for giving it everything and said Aledo were, "number one for a reason," suggests they're in good hands.

Meanwhile, in other school football news from the maddest country in the world, one Randy Burbach has been fired as coach of Corbett Middle School in Oregon for bringing his 12- to 14-year-old players to Hooters, a restaurant known for its well-built and tightly-costumed waitresses.

We might just leave that one.

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