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From Your Upper School Division Head: Run Hard, Give Lots of High Fives, and Have Fun
Henry Heil

I was struck by the early November article in the Boston Globe and subsequent follow up in the Harvard Gazette about the scarcity of referees in Massachusetts. Angry, vocal parents and coaches have created a hostile working environment for those who are paid very little to officiate youth sports. After reflection, I am convinced that the scoreboard is the culprit. In my experience, winning or losing drives emotions and, while the referee shortage is a tangible consequence for this reality, it is our children who suffer the most. 

As I have asserted before, education is not a zero-sum game, but a lifelong, continuous process. There are no "winners" and "losers," only those who are ahead and those who are behind at any given instant. Why should youth sports be any different? Yes, there is a clock and a scoreboard. But, from one contest to the next, a good coach focuses most intently on improving performance, regardless of the end results. For me, there is an equal or greater value in failure than there is in success.

ESD's Virtue for November was, fittingly, Thankfulness. In addition to their appreciation for family, friends, and health, in my monthly chapel talk, I encouraged Upper School students to consider offering thanks this year for mistakes, lost opportunities, accidents, and failures. Not only is it healthy and normal to experience these, but oftentimes such negative moments can change one's life in exceedingly positive ways. For example, had I not been denied a job that I greatly desired in the Winter of 2016, I would have never pursued the opportunity at ESD the following year. I am eternally grateful for that failure.

[As an aside, it is worth noting that many of today's thought leaders have highlighted the importance and necessity of failing. Jessica Lahey's book, The Gift of Failure, is the centerpiece of this school of thought. Interestingly, quitting has gained traction in recent years. Angela Duckworth and Seth Godin have espoused the value of quitting. Rich Karlgaard, in his recent book, Late Bloomers, writes, 

The fact is, it's just as important to know when to drop something and shift direction as it is to know when to stick with something…. Quitting doesn't necessarily mean we're weak or lazy. Quitting can also mean we're honest with ourselves. Quitting is really the process of saying no.

I'm sure that this idea resonates with you as it does with me. You can't find success in every venture. And, it's tremendously helpful to know when to move on to the next.]

I realize that it is incredibly challenging to embrace a loss or failure. It is really personal. No one wants to see their child in pain. The team lost in overtime to Hockaday. Shoot. They wanted the lead role in the play and didn't get it. That hurts. They bombed a major test. Ouch. They didn't get into their first-choice college. Oh no. It is way easier and causes far less heartache to "win" in all these scenarios. That heartache, however, is the direct result of a paradigm our current culture has constructed.

I have the pleasure of coaching both 1st and 3rd-grade girls fellowship basketball teams. We compete against squads from Parish Episcopal, Hockaday, Good Shepherd, Wesley Prep and so on. One could say that consistently beating these schools gives us bragging rights. Others might argue that dominating these competitions is a useful admissions tool. Some might even offer that winning is a direct reflection of the quality, character, or abilities of ESD girls. All of these ideas place a ton of pressure on parents, coaches, and players. 

The stakes, of course, get higher as children get older. State championships, All-SPC, captaincy, and a myriad of other factors frontload the desire to win. The pressure these stakes create can lead to anxiety which, in turn, manifests in a sharp increase in emotions. These emotions emerge in the form of angry outbursts at officials, coaches, or each other. It is no wonder officials are hard to find these days, particularly in places where parent engagement is high.

What if we approached this differently and attempted to change the paradigm?

I wrote last year about Trust, Commitment, and Care. ESD offers its students all three in spades. In return, however, we expect each student to work hard, build their character, and take care of each other. I believe those are noble aspirations. And, nowhere did I mention the need to win.

When we get in the car after a game, I always say to my own children, "I loved watching you play today." If they want to talk more about the game, I am willing. As a former competitive athlete, I have a lot to say and I'm not always perfect. But, I would prefer if they first know that I enjoyed seeing them compete. Just like I enjoy seeing them in a school play or enjoy watching them carry the cross in chapel.

Equally importantly, before every athletic contest, I ask my children a simple question. What do you need to do in the game today? Their response is predictable: "run hard, give lots of high fives, and have fun." I know their response because I emphasize these basics to them all the time. This is our family version of "work hard, build character, and take care of each other." I care that my kids give it their best effort in everything they do. I care that they connect with their teammates and show appreciation for their coaches. And, I want them to enjoy the experience so that they aspire to do it again and again. 

Some might say, "the kids have more fun when they win." I disagree. Winning is only more fun for kids when they believe that is what the adults in their life want them to do. We adults are capable of reconfiguring the current paradigm. If we can focus our energies on the learning that happens in every facet of our children's life, we can help lower the stakes. Lowering the stakes will lower the pressure and the emotions that our children feel. Referees might just even make a comeback.

Will you join me in this effort?

If your answer is yes, a good starting point would be Play Like a Champion, a program planned by our athletic department. Please remember to RSVP by January 15.