“Just keep running,” the coaches and parents shouted in unison each time she touched the ball.
The girl, 4-5 years old, was clearly happy with receiving the ball and then just standing in one place as she meticulously considered her next option, shifting the angle of her feet behind the ball and peering across the field between defenders. Of course, in those quickly passing seconds, her opponents easily kicked the ball away from her and flew toward her goal with an open shot.
At halftime, the coach knelt down in front of the girl on the sideline and explained to her that when she gets the ball, that she should keep running, not stand still, and he outstretched his arm and pointed off in the distance to emphasize his point. The girl smiled and said, “Okay, coach!”
When the next half started, and the girl gained possession of the ball, something different happened.
Instead of standing in one place and weighing her options, the girl found a new gear. She immediately dribbled the ball, spun, and started running…
in the opposite direction…
…in the general direction where the coach had just pointed his arm moments prior.
There was an eruption of shouts and directions and yelling from the coaches and parents, but this girl was in the zone! Her coach told her to keep running, and that’s exactly what she was going to do.
She ran right past her team’s goal…over the endline…and was about three fields down before one of her coaches finally caught up to her.
I love this story. First, because it’s true (the girl played on the opposing team during one of my son’s early soccer games). Second, because it underscores the importance of something we often take for granted, especially as coaches, parents, and mentors of young people: the importance of words.
Even more specifically, I think this story highlights the tendency of kids (especially younger kids) to take our words literally.
Words Mean What They Mean
I’ve learned this first-hand as a parent. When one of my other sons was about 3-years-old, we were about to take our dog for a walk. I asked him to get the leash, which he did, but he walked up to the dog and held up the wrong end to her collar. I smiled and said, “Buddy, you need to use the other end.”
Without skipping a beat, he took that leash, and immediately stuck it right under her tail.
I also immediately realized that was completely my fault.
I assumed too much. I assumed that he understood I meant the leash (not the dog). Even worse, I assumed he just generally understood that the leash attaches to a collar. Clearly that wasn’t the case either.
As in the case with the runaway-soccer-player, my son did exactly what I asked him to do. Without any other prior experience or deeper explanation to help him put my request into context, he did what made the most sense.
It’s an easy and common mistake for any parent or coach to make. We sometimes forget where our kids are on their spectrum of development or understanding. We introduce terminology or techniques that should naturally build off previously developed fundamentals or concepts – oftentimes before those foundational experiences have been established. Every sport has its own examples, but just think of all the phrases and jargon that we as adults use to describe strategy or action in a baseball game. Imagine you’re a 7-year-old-kid playing baseball for the first time and your coach starts saying things like:
Until that kid has had enough experience watching, talking about, and being taught about baseball, literally none of those phrases will make any sense whatsoever. The problem is when we as coaches and parents forget that…or refuse to take a few steps back to explain the basic concepts that give those phrases meaning.
The other problem is when kids really do understand the meaning of the words we use – even if we don’t realize they’re paying attention.
It could be the conversation during the ride home about how the coach doesn’t know what she’s doing or how the officials were completely out of line. It could be the post-game address from the coach sarcastically pointing out the flaws and errors that cost the team the game. Or, it could be the words said on the sideline or in the stands by family and friends that actually get to the ears of the players on the field.
Even though as parents we often like to joke that our kids don’t want to listen to us – the truth is that they do. And when we speak ill of other players, parents, coaches, officials, opponents, you can bet they’re paying attention.
A good friend of mine was driving home from a basketball game with her daughter this past season. The team was young and had struggled. Well, unfortunately, some of the parents in the stands weren’t shy about expressing their opinions about the coaches and the girls during the games, and they weren’t exactly positive. Despite that, and to the coach’s credit, the girls kept a very positive attitude, had fun, and still learned and developed throughout the year. But it may not have gone that way.
During this particular ride home, seemingly out of nowhere, my friend’s daughter asked her mom, “Are we really that bad?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, what all the parents say. Are we really that bad?”
It about broke my friends heart to hear that. She hadn’t realized that anything that was being said in the stands was even being heard or processed by her daughter or anyone else on the team.
The good news was that she was able to use that as a great opportunity to teach her daughter about respecting teammates and officials and how important it is, as a competitor, to stay focused on what she’s doing on the floor versus paying attention to what anyone is saying in the stands (positive or negative).
Mean What You Say
It may sound like common sense, and I suppose it is, but I don’t know if it’s always common practice. Especially when in a position to influence young people, remember that your words absolutely do matter. And until or unless they learn otherwise, kids will trust your opinion and take your words at face value so be careful with the words you choose and be intentional about the ways in which you use them.
Sometimes the worst case scenario is when kids listen to exactly what we do say.