Is making good ‘players’ antithetical to making good ‘people’?

Roy Keane got fired today. As a midfielder for Manchester United he was held in awe by fans and feared by opponents (and teammates for the most part). His management career, one which requires a wider emotional spectrum for success than a playing career, is now in tatters. He walked away from Sunderland (or jumped before he was pushed some would say) and now Ipswich have fired him.

The Guardian dug up a quote from one of his former players, Andy Reid, to put the dismissal in perspective.

“At the very, very top of football you find people who are almost ridiculously obsessive. Probably a perfect example would be Roy Keane.”

This touches on something I, as both a parent and a coach, have thought  about quite often. When you look at the pressure cooker environments that top players are subjected to from a very young age, what are the qualities necessary to forge a top class soccer player? And are those qualities, or some of them, contrary to what most parents would want to instill in their kids to make them top class people? Who wants to raise kids to be obsessive? I think it’s fairly accepted that to make the top level of soccer you do indeed need to be obsessive about the game. The problem is that very, very few players to get to the stage where they make a good living at the game.
I don’t pretend to know all the answers to questions like that. I do know from personal experience that my rise to the higher levels of local and Canadian soccer was driven by an unnaturally wide competitive streak. I’ve come to terms with this as an adult and deliberately reined in a bit as I don’t want my kids feeling that every endeavour they participate in needs to be seen as a contest with a winner and a loser.
To the contrary though, I still believe that kids are generally not taught to compete fairly and earnestly nearly enough. While there’s societal value in having a school system that sees itself as the builder of good citizens, our schools seem to have gone so far as to try to quell a lot of natural competitive instincts. Untrained, those competitive pulses come out raw and uninformed and lead to accusations of insensitivity, classlessness and even bullying.
So what’s the middle ground, if like me, you think there should be one. Obviously, organized team sport is a fantastic venue for consolidated life lessons in winning and losing and the concomitant pursuit of one while avoiding the other.
Teaching kids to respect opponents while being honest about wanting to succeed are the two fulcrums that, for me, are most important in the complicated path to building kids that will have the tools to deal with a tough adult world without turning them into overbearing little pricks when they’re just out of diapers.
I used to malign most opponents in my head when I was younger. Somehow I would manipulate any material that was available and skew it to make other teams unlikeable. On top of that, once a game started, I completely personalized the ‘battle’ between myself and the striker I was marking. Maybe because it wasn’t my nature to be overly physical I felt I needed to manufacture hostility to ensure I was prepared for the physical aspects of the game. Regardless, this carried on right through my UBC soccer days where I had a strong dislike of UVic. For no other reason than they were our main rivals, I disliked the university and even the city of Victoria!
This is obviously not a quality that helps make an adult function well.
Bringing this back to some semblance of relevancy, did playing at an increasingly high level of soccer make me a more unlikeable, unreasonable person or did I just benefit from naturally being an unlikeable, unreasonable person in the first place ;). In other words, what came first: chicken or egg.
I know my competitive streak was never harnessed or discouraged and I can remember being pathologically obsessed with winning from the age of 3 or 4. Either I didn’t notice or didn’t care that some around me were alienated by this. Perhaps those concerns were just not as heartfelt as the sheer joy of winning. I can’t deny though that in tryout situations I definitely benefited from a cutthroat mentality and thrived in an environment where direct comparisons were being made. I was able to figure out how to be better than others trying out for the same position and then better than teammates so I got to start and get more playing time.
I do know now that at some point this became an embarrassment to me and I’m now very conscious of not burdening my kids with a win at all cost mentality. So while respecting the need to cultivate competitive instincts, it runs parallel with teaching them to respect opponents and have some grace when results don’t run their way. In particular with my daughter’s U16 team, we’ve had instances when we talk about not being afraid to compete and declare that something we want (eg. to win the league, to be undefeated, to win a particular game) is important to us and we’re not going to pretend otherwise. No one wins all the time so it’s important that they have the tools to deal with defeat. It’s really a matter of choosing a life that has peaks (success) and valleys (disappointments) while providing the tools to successfully dismount from the highs and climb out of the lows.
I think it’s helpful to establish that the opponent is not some caricatured evil in their minds. They’re just a bunch of kids too and if they win they’ll be happy and if they lose they’ll be upset. Just like them. If that’s your starting point in each competitive pursuit, it provides perspective throughout the time you’re engaged with an opponent and informs the response when it’s over. The joy of winning is one shared with teammates and supporters and rather than at the expense of the beaten team. Similarly, defeats can be formative and not seen as a zero sum proposition that lowers self worth.

I played five years at UBC and lost a total of three games in that time. I remember each of them well. Going back to Andy Reid’s comment on Roy Keane, does that make me obsessive (and I’m not pretending that Canadian varsity soccer is the ‘very, very top’ level of the game but at the time it was right up there by Canadian standards)? Yes, but obsessive with self-awareness of the fact is quite helpful. Personally and as a parent.
Without knowing Roy Keane it’s hard to say what he’s left with personally, in terms of relationships, as he closes in on the age of 40. Sadly, I would guess it’s something similar to fellow hard-man and retired footballer Tony Adams. Adams also had a short career as a manager and was left to comment that in the end he really didn’t like being around people much and would rather spend his days walking his dogs in the country. Roy Keane’s got dogs too. Might be just as well.

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7 Responses to Is making good ‘players’ antithetical to making good ‘people’?

  1. Brendan Quarry says:

    Very interesting, Gregor. I’ve often said that while we all tend to admire extremely talented athletes such as Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Roy Keane, etc., the reality is that these individuals are probably not very balanced human beings. I remember reading an article about Wayne Gretzky in Maclean’s magazine. Gretzky admitted that even in his final year with the Rangers, he could never get to sleep after a hockey game. He would spend the night obsessively replaying segments of the game in his mind and chastising himself for not making different decisions with the puck. So here’s a guy who, most agree, is an excellent ambassador for the game of hockey and an great role model for kids. But I would imagine, he’s probably difficult to live with.

    • Gregor says:

      Heard some stories from someone in the media that suggested Gretzky wasn’t exactly the ‘great role model for kids’ that most think he is/was! But I really don’t know the answer. I believe playing team sports in general gives kids great tools to deal with lots of everyday situations and problems. I just wonder if at some point that is mitigated by the demands placed on athletes at the very high end especially now that promising young soccer players are increasingly trained like mini adults from a very young age.

  2. Larry says:

    Gregor, in many ways, to at the top level for anything one has to be a bit obsessive or as they say in business, “passionate”. It’s a good thing however that most youth come through the sports system to hopefully be good people.

  3. Fred Cutler says:

    Gregor, this is so good you could do a version for an op-ed for the Province.
    @Brendan: Witness even sweetie-pie Steve Nash’s divorce.

    Anyone familiar with the antics of Australian Rugby League players? They make Joey Barton look like an angel. (Actually, his passing has been angelic, or at least Beckham-esque lately).

    [@Brendan again: I think we probably played together at some point with Mark Berry and other lads behind Ashbury, circa 1986.]

    • Gregor says:

      Thanks Fred.

      By the way that bit about playing with the lads behind Ashbury circa 1986 sounds like it was borrowed from a Morrissey song…

  4. Brendan Quarry says:

    My father is a big rugby fan. He played at a high level as a youth, captaining his school team in England (he bemoans the fact that my brother and I are so heavily involved in soccer). Anyway, he told me that he saw an interview once with Jonny Wilkinson’s father. The reporter said something to the effect of “your son must really love rugby.” The father paused for a second and said “I can’t say he loves it. I would say it’s a bit of a burden for him, actually.” He then went on to explain how his son is an interminable perfectionist and feels a sense of relief after each game – if he was able to avoid making a mistake.

    @Fred: Wow, Mark Berry. Now there’s a name from the past. Yes, I played soccer for Glebe Collegiate in Ottawa. Were you an Ashbury boy?

  5. Fred Cutler says:

    @ BQ. THis isn’t the place for an Ottawa nostalgia conversation, but what the hell: to answer your question, No, Lisgar (with Mark, Tameem, etc) but I may have been a couple of years behind you? — grad in 87. Lost to Glebe 3-0 in finals Nov 86 at Terry Fox, temp -3, windchill -10, me stupidly wearing shorts and getting seriously scraped up mistiming tackles on Glebe’s Italian contingent on the lumpy, frozen ground.

    And speaking of obsessive sportsmen, let’s not settle for Robbie Savage, what we really need in town is another Welshman: Craig Bellamy. He’s hurt and barely playing. He could rehab here and be ready for the summer. He’d sure stir things up. And provide some quality rarely seen in MLS — that guy can seriously play when he’s healthy.

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