It started out like any other game day, the drive to the venue (away but still relatively local), a sense of anticipation and excitement at what was to follow (my childhood dreams of being coach live on), and questions regarding what, where and how we would play? What would be our keys to success? How competitive would we be? These all raced through me like a Saturday afternoon track meet. I was ready to go!
I walked into the venue in my usual game day good mood, the players were already getting changed and organising themselves. I greeted the parents, exchanged pleasantries and made my way to our bench. On my way over I was greeted by a familiar face, it didn’t register with me straight away but there was “I know you” feel about the encounter. However, as we got deeper into our exchange, conversing on what was right and wrong within youth sport, I realised I had witnessed this person berate their charges, demand a parent leave the sports hall and generally argue and shout at anyone and everyone in sight of the game. I continued to listen as they discussed philosophy, values and their winning record of years past. I couldn’t quite put my finger on the request that was being bestowed my way, however I was sure I was just asked to modify our play to meet the needs of the opposing team. I walked to our bench not quite sure what to make of the exchange.
The first quarter was not pretty at all, we couldn’t find our range regardless of how close to the basket the attempt was, we missed everything. They were third from bottom of the table and were with us stride for stride. I could feel a mood change, I was frustrated at our play and began to direct players’, question those on the bench at side of me and generally get after our intensity, execution and quality of movement. I had once more journeyed back to the traditional instructionalist I was currently running from.
The first quarter ended and after a number of miscalls, bad calls and hard fouls my earlier conversation started to show itself. The disconnect between the purported philosophy of the opposition, the relationship with the officials and the presence of a family member on the table began to establish itself and challenge everything sacred about competition, sport and the provision of opportunity for young people.
As we got into the second quarter the bellows from the opposing bench grew louder and louder. At one point there was a full-blown argument between player and coach mid game! I attempted to keep us focused, looking forward at what we were doing and nothing else. The reality was that this was never going to be the case. For the third time one of us went down hard, crashing to the floor with nothing to brace the fall or justify the foul. The game was lost to chaos and anarchy!
In among all of the debris one of us had managed to pick up technical foul whilst waiting at the free throw line to shoot as a result of the latest intentional foul. Can you even pick up a technical foul whilst awaiting the ball to shoot a free throw? The officiating had descended into ludicracy! The call made no sense, but even worse than that, the comments that followed were seemingly personal, the referee had decided that the game belonged to him and he would do as he wished. Making call after call in a personal vacuum validated by opinion as opposed to regulations. I had to sit two players down for picking up four fouls in less minutes. I was now angry, a state of mind and emotion I should not and did not want to express during the playing of a youth basketball game. Had the world gone mad? Had he gone mad? What possible reason could there be for any of these people to be allowed to remain actors and role models in this world? I couldn’t get my breath; thankfully the whistle blew for half time. I walked us back to the changing rooms, for no other reason than to escape the blatant victimisation that was unfolding before me.
In the changing room I paused before speaking, I wanted to say so much that was not appropriate, that should not fall on the ears on young sports participants. They had done no wrong; they had played an honest and fair half of basketball and for their troubles had been beaten up by a biased whistle, indignation without a cause and fuelled by hostility! I finally spoke, my message was clear, say nothing, rise above the challenges and play with heart, ferocity and intent. Had I incited them to ‘run over’ the opposition? I had indeed and that sadden me, but at that moment I felt that our only redress was to play with fury, to rise above what was unfolding and demonstrate that we would not fall to the indiscretions of the officials, the challenges of the opposition or the tyranny of the forceful shouting and screaming.
We finished the game with a 65-point victory, not something that anybody wants to see or that is even necessary within youth sport. However, we played great basketball, we pressed, ran and finished with class. Not one player challenged a call, uttered a word at the opposition or showed any decent at any moment of the game and I was proud of them. They had shown resilience in the face of adversity, they had stood strong and not faulted in their pursuit of personal and collective development.
The game had passed, I was on my way home and my once game day good mood was nothing more than a distant memory. I had been party to everything I fight against in youth sport. We cannot use the word corruption as it is possibly too grand, but it felt like that. The individual lack of professionalism by one had caused the behaviours of many to change and had tainted the fabric of the game I love.