Saturday, April 20, 2013

The joy of Division 4

Our regional youth soccer league places teams into one of four divisions, ranked from 1 to 4.  Division 1 contains the very best players, the ones who vie to be state champions, and it goes down from there.  By the time you get to Division 4, you find the kids who have the lowest level of individual skills, the least ability to execute plays requiring two or more members of the team acting in concert, and the poorest physical conditioning.

For a referee, officiating a Division 1 game is a physical and mental challenge.  The play is fast and furious; the teams are often evenly matched, so the official is required to move up and down the full length of the field many times; the kids exercise creative plays that are interesting to watch; and the players are likely to engage in intentional fouls of the other team, trying to do so when you have turned your attention to another part of the field.  Those of us who have refereed for many years view these high level games as fun, because they keep us on our toes and requires many judgment calls as the game progresses, all in real time.

In contrast, refereeing a Division 4 game can be as exciting as watching paint dry.  You seldom need to run to keep up with the play, whether or not one team dominates the game.  The fouls that occur are usually inadvertent, the result of clumsiness, not intent.  Goals seldom occur, as the kids have trouble making consecutive passes.

I was thinking of this today as I officiated a Division 4 boys game.  It was so boring that I was having trouble keeping my concentration, and then I realized I was not exercising a proper duty of care in my position as the lead official on the team.  I simply wasn't being fair to the 22 players on the field.  They were playing hard, but I was not.

So, I looked for things to notice about the boys and about the game, hoping to do a better job maintaining my interest.  The first thing I noticed was that the boys were nice to each other.  They all knew they were not terrific players, and so when someone made a good play, the others praised him.  When someone muffed a play, there was no criticism.  Quite the contrary.  You'd hear, "Good try, Joe," or "We'll get it next time, Sam."  Even when the error was egregious, one that would make me squirm in embarrassment for the child.

The next thing I noticed was that these were really intelligent kids.  The structure and vocabulary they used reflected the best students of their age level (13- and 14-year-olds).  They employed the sardonic--and often self-deprecating--humor that is characteristic of intelligent children who are good at science and math.  Perhaps you've heard it.  It is the humor that is displayed by people with enough confidence to realize that mistakes are to be learned from.  Interestingly, too, the boys were able to analyze the game situation and comment on it and know what should have been happening, even if they were unable to execute it.

Finally, the boys were having fun.  There were smiles.  There was laughter.

So, I finally realized that I was surrounded by the kids we would have affectionately called nerds.  I know the group well because I was one of them growing up and went to a college (MIT) that was full of them.  To stereotype, they are great at academics, not particularly great at athletics, and a bit socially inept, except when among themselves.  But, to recap, they were having fun.  They were thinking and learning the whole time.  They were behaving like good and supportive members of a team.

I felt abashed that I had allowed myself to become bored in their presence, that I wasn't giving their game the attention it deserved, that I had allowed my performance to wane.  I became revived and realized that their game was an important as any Division 1 game I had officiated.  I understood that it was filled with joy and that, if I did my job right, I could experience the joy myself.


Bill said...

This is a wonderful post, Paul...reminds us all that the game is not about US or our preferences.

Jeff said...

Fantastic. What a great way to look at the game!

Ed said...

A nice post. I tend to think of division 4 as the kids that we’ll all be working for some day – if we’re fortunate enough to live that long. We want to keep them happy.