I recently watched a softball game played by seven and eight year old girls, one of whom is my granddaughter and my only reason for being there. The opposing team had a gung-ho coach who believed that every child, no matter how unathletic, required loud re-enforcement for every swing of the bat. She stood about twenty feet away from the plate and yelled instructions to “touch the plate, give me a practice swing, take your time, keep your eye on the ball,” the usual bromidic advice for young batters and certainly not harmful to hear. After each failed swing, she had a different positive message that increased in ludicrousness with every strike. The first one elicited “good eye contact,” which progressed to “good watching,” and finally “good waiting” and “good job.”
Good job for striking out? How can any child trust an adult who tells her that? By the age of seven, all children understand the human pecking order and will tell you who’s the fastest runner, the best pitcher, catcher, slugger, the meanest player and the worst sport. They know their own strengths and weaknesses and must bridle at the condescension implied in telling them otherwise. Even though this generation of kids gets a “good job” for walking and breathing simultaneously, when it comes to action that can be objectively measured - hit or strike, catch or fumble, make it to base or get tagged out - they clearly know the difference between good and not good (bad has been eliminated from all child-centered vocabulary).
The subtext beneath the coach’s approbation is that girls who aren’t good at softball need to have their confidence artificially bolstered lest they become frustrated, lose interest or fall apart from humiliation. It’s predicated on the notion that everyone has to be equal so if some girls are actually worse at a game, their deficiences must be masked with doublespeak. Of course many genetic factors influence performance which is why there are so few outstanding athletes despite widespread participation in certain sports. Instead of leveling with kids and admitting that not everyone will do well though most will improve with practice, “good jobbing” implies that just stepping up to the plate, however ineptly, is worthy of praise. Playing on a team can be a valuable experience even for kids who don’t shine; they experience esprit de corps, they make friends, they get exercise and they learn a lot about sportsmanship. All these are honest gains.
Another gain is allowing children to fail at some things and realize that their world doesn’t come to an end because of it. That’s called growing up. If kids weren’t brainwashed by educators and over-zealous coaches, they’d come to a realistic assessment of such loaded issues as self-esteem. They’d accept that most of us have something we’re better at and feel proud of and other things we’re not so good at but do anyway because that’s part of being a good sport. That lesson trumps confusing encouragement with false praise.
My granddaughter’s team lost the game but to their coach who refrained from sycophantic flattery and to the girls who played on with determination while losing, I tip my hat and say “good teamwork - try harder next time.”
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