Learning How to Lose — and Bounce Back

by | May 17, 2012 | Uncategorized | 3 comments

[Listen to the audio by clicking here: Sports Parents 5-12]

Teresa Bloodman’s son was thrilled to pass the first two tryouts for his Maumelle, Arkansas, high school freshman basketball team, which allowed him to play on the team for the first two months of the fall.  But, when the football season ended, the coach held a third round of tryouts so the football players could come out for the team, he cut Bloodman’s son.

She was so livid she sued the school, the district and the state.  She claimed cutting her son was arbitrary, that the lack of a formal appeals process was a violation of due process, and that her son has a constitutional right to participate in school sports.

I can appreciate a mother’s pain seeing her son suffer a setback.  And certainly, coaches make plenty of arbitrary decisions, even unfair ones.  But if Bloodman wins this case, the rest of us will lose – especially her son.

Her lawyer wants the coach to use a quantitative evaluation system for tryouts – rating each candidate’s skill in dribbling, passing, and shooting, for example – to make the process more objective.

But only an idiot would pick a team on stats alone.  In 1980, U.S. Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks decided the key to beating the all-powerful Soviet team was speed, not scoring.  And that’s why he cut two-time All-American Ralph Cox, one of the nation’s leading scorers that year, for players with fewer goals but more speed.  Brooks’s team won the gold medal.  Guess he picked the right guys.

Any coach with a heart will tell you try-outs are the worst day of the season.  When I coached a high school hockey team, “cut-day” inevitably ended with a lot of long, private conversations and plenty of Kleenex, but almost all the players and parents handled it extremely well.  One mom, however, I will probably never forget.

Before I became head coach, her son had been accused of stealing money from the locker room as a freshman.  Unsolicited, he told me he didn’t do it, and I believed him – and even if he had, any ninth-grader surely deserves a second chance.

After my first team finished the season, we let him join our spring team, which was normally reserved for guys who’d already played on the varsity, and our summer team, and our fall team.  He asked us to move him from defense, to offense, then back to defense – and we did.  But he didn’t play very well at either position, and did no better in our try-outs.  With dozens of good players trying out for the team, I felt I had no choice but to cut him – and many others.

It wasn’t fun.  I had grown to like him quite a bit, and admired his attitude.

But I thought that was that, until I received a long letter from his mother.  She misquoted something I had said to the players in August, when we were running outside.  “I can tell even now what kind of team we’re going to have,” I said, praising their dedication and hard work.  She wasn’t there, but claimed I’d said, “I can tell right now who’s going to be on the team.”

Not quite the same things – the latter being something only the dumbest coach in the country would ever say.  (And you can keep your comments to yourself.  Even I wasn’t that stupid.)

She added this kicker about her son being cut: “Others have committed suicide for less.”

Wisely, I did not respond then.  But I will now.   First, some advice:

-Don’t automatically assume your child is telling you the whole truth.

-If your kids have a problem with their teacher or their coach or their choir director, let your kids approach them first.  If they don’t learn how, now, who’s going to approach their professor, or their boss?

-If you must write, wait at least 24 hours.  And don’t write anything you wouldn’t say to their face.  Email gives false courage to cowards.

-Even better, don’t write anything at all, or else you’ll deny your child a vital lesson: life is tough, and not always fair.  But you have to keep going anyway.

In eighth grade, I had had a great spring hockey league, scoring five times more than the other center.  But that fall, he made the travel team, and I didn’t.  I was crushed.  But my parents did something wonderful: Nothing.  The next year, I realized a lifelong dream when I made the high school varsity.

A few years later, when some colleges rejected me, I could handle it.  When I started out as a writer, and received literally hundreds of rejection letters from magazines, I could handle that, too.  And if I couldn’t, you would not be reading this right now.

And I would not have the chance, in print, to thank my parents, for not fighting my battles for me, and giving me the great gift of growing up.

 * * * * *

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Radio stuff: I’m back to my original normal of 9:05 Friday mornings on WTKA (semester’s over!), and sticking to my new normal on Michigan Radio of 8:50.  And yes, there will be a quiz, so “stop what you’re doing, and listen!”

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“Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football” can be ordered now.

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  1. Adam

    I cannot thank you enough for writing this. On the last day of JV baseball tryouts in 9th grade I was the only person cut. He read off the names of everyone on the team and it took me a second to realize that I was the only person he didn’t call.

    My parents helped me cope, but also worked to create it into a learning experience, and it only further motivated me to try out again (with better results) the next year.

  2. Meredith Gremel

    AMEN John! I’ve forwarded this to the Rockford High School Athletic Director and coaches I know. And one other thought — parents who continually tell their kids they are great at whatever they do to build up their self confidence (or avoid conflict/reality) only rob their kids of their ability to self evaluate because their internal meter is completely out of whack. Keep up the good work!

  3. John Poinier

    I enjoy your commentaries and feel I must comment on this one as I too have had a similar conflict both as a parent and a coach. As a parent we went to Cleveland for a tournament (travel hockey) where my son averaged 3 minutes a game. Realizing that he wasn’t the strongest member on the team, and the object in travel hockey is not for everyone to get equal ice time but to field the most competitive lines I did not comment about how he had the least amount of ice but was the most productive player. Driving back I tried to explain to him that sometimes coaches get caught up in the game and lose track of what happens on the ice but base their decisions on previous games and practices I’m not sure he bought it but he said that he thought he needed to work harder in practices and not goof around so much.

    Later, as a travel coach, we went to a tournament and decided to alternate our goalies. After reaching the finals, the decision was made to go with the goalie who had won the last game after a stellar performance. It was extremely hard to justify to the mother of the sitting goalie why the decision was made. Needless to say, the goalie absolutely stunk, and we ended up pulling him after the first period. In sports, be it playing, parenting, or coaching there are lessons to be learned and times when the “fairness” just isn’t there. It is because of those times that life and sports imitate each other. Life is not fair but we learn this lesson, make the best of it and move on.


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