Lord Wellington famously stated that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. He was referring of course to what the combination of classical upbringing, culture and athletics can produce in young men (and in our modern context young women). When I was growing up in private school these same values were planted in me and my classmates. Not that our school was an elite, socially exclusive private school but it was classical. We studied Latin and Logic, and played Soccer, basketball and ran track. And while we were expected to be aggressive on the playing field, we were also taught to be respectful of the adversary. We were expected to strike a balance between competition and gentility, (not that we struck fairly every time).
Now that I’m a parent (of a son who’s far more athletically gifted than I was), I’m working to give him the same educational experience I had. I try to emphasize for him that he should never use these gifts to prey upon those who are either weaker or less capable than he is. I tell him to compete, play hard, work hard, get ahead but be just.
But all this is difficult to emphasize sometimes in the context of local sporting clubs. My son plays on a team of third graders, in Lindale. They are a great team with a terrific coach. The team has been a huge blessing and has helped to give my son an outlet for his abounding energy. But often playing in tournaments outside our immediate community can be frustrating.
About three weeks ago however, our team participated in the Tyler Brookshire’s Soccer tournament. It was an illuminating peek into a competitive culture unconcerned with creating an environment sportsmanship, gentility, and fair play. And lest my reader think I’m speaking as the bitter parent of a losing team, we won more than we lost, and beat some good teams. But I also witnessed some cheap shots. I saw officiating that gave up control of the game. I saw players throwing others to the ground from behind with arms fully extended; right in front of refs who did nothing. I saw coaches bring in ringers and deliberately play in weaker recreational leagues just to ensure their players ranked. I saw parents behave as though their children were competing for spots on the national team.
All this I think, is emblematic of a culture that values winning over nobility. These clubs exist without providing the ballast of education. Essentially they can only serve the competitive side of the child’s nature. And too many of the children’s coaches are only interested in that competitive half. Unfortunately the student learns more about winning at any cost and less about sportsmanship and teamwork. Now I should emphasize that I love to win. But life is not just about winning. It’s about how you win. I don’t expect my son to be showered with honors he hasn’t earned, that is also the wrong lesson. What I want is to build him into a whole person, capable of leaving it all on the playing but of being a gentleman off it.