You are not yet 9 years old, still in the third grade, and very much a little girl. Though I will one day write you a letter about the woman I hope you will become, this is not that letter.
No, this is a very different letter. The time has come to have a hard talk.
Not that talk. That one’s coming next year, or maybe the year after that, if I can protect your innocence long enough and you run with a crowd of kids who don’t have older siblings or parents who think that the third grade is a good time to discuss sex.
No, this is a different talk. This is a talk about assholes (not the literal kind, stop laughing) and sportsmanship.
Do you remember this past fall when I was coaching your volleyball team and we went to another gym for a game? Do you remember that the other team’s coach was a complete jerk?
That’s the asshole I’m talking about.
It’s been a few months, so you may have already forgotten the full extent of his bad behavior. You may have forgotten the disrespect he demonstrated for the referee. You may have forgotten how he belittled her, how he undermined her authority with snide remarks, complaints and wild arm motions—each action intended to distract her from the game and make her question her own judgment. You may have forgotten how he encouraged his players and their parents to jeer when she made a call in our team’s favor or how he made rude noises whenever we scored a point.
You may have even forgotten that you asked me why he was so mean, but I have not.
You see, I’ve played sports pretty much my entire life. I began dance as a toddler, moved into softball in elementary school, then volleyball in middle and high school. I’ve coached youth volleyball, including at the high school level and competitive traveling teams, and now I coach you. So it’s safe to say that I know what I’m doing when it comes to teaching young girls how to play team sports.
And that asshole? He is doing it wrong.
This is what I’ve always tried to pass on to you and the other girls whom I’ve coached. It’s a lesson that applies to everyone, regardless of age, gender or chosen activity: The foundation of playing team sports is learning good sportsmanship. At your age, it is equally as important that you learn about fairness and respect and how to be a team player as it is that you learn to pass and serve and call the ball and move your feet.
Now, I’m not one of those parents who thinks that fairness and being a team player mean there shouldn’t be winners and losers. It’s important that you accept that you can’t be the best at everything you do. You need to lose. Learning to how to handle it graciously is a key part of what you’re supposed to take away from youth sports. There is so much more to learn from playing on a team than just the skill set.
You need to learn to respect the people who make playing the game possible, like your coaches and teammates and the referees. That’s sportsmanship. Referees aren’t there to make you look good; they’re the people who make the game feasible for everyone. Without the referees, it’s not a sport; it’s just practice. The referee is a position that deserves respect, and not just from you, but from the parents and coaches as well.
When a coach stands on the sidelines of a game at this level and yells at the referee about a bad call, he’s showing you that he doesn’t care what else his players learn from him as long as they win. He’s laying the type of foundation that makes children grow up to think that it’s OK to disrespect people in authority. He’s teaching you that belittling the people who are there for you and your team is an acceptable way to show your appreciation.
That’s an asshole move. If you take away nothing else from this, take this: People who volunteer out of the kindness of their hearts should be given a reasonable amount of leeway for their errors. As you get older, the game will get more complicated. It won’t be about just knowing the basic skills; it’ll be about putting them together to make plays and be competitive. When that happens, the referees go from being volunteers who may not know much about the game to being highly-trained, knowledgable facilitators of the sport. The referees will grow with the game, just like you. And then, sportsmanship will be just as important as it is now.
But right now? For a referee who gives her free time to a local gym on a random Saturday so that a bunch of third- and fourth-graders can play volleyball? It’s fair to cut her a lot of slack. It’s enough that she is there and trying her hardest, just like you. There are no championships on the line, no scholarships to be missed, no tournaments to be lost because she made a bad call. The weight of the world does not rest on her decisions, and we’re not going to act like it does.
It’s all about perspective, baby girl. Keep it.
At this point, it’s been so long since all of this went down that I think you may have forgotten how that game turned out. Guess what? I’m not going to tell you.
Because only an asshole cares about the win/loss record of a bunch of 8-year-olds.