Purple Mermaids - Death or Glory

So the Guardian decided their opinion on the US men's national team mattered to somebody somewhere, and they crapped this out:

The Purple Mermaids, an under-eight girls’ team, takes part in a New York City soccer league that has “everyone plays” as its motto. The league is not competitive, statistics are not recorded, and no results are logged. The keyword is participation and fun. The team will end its fall season this weekend with a trophy presentation. Each player will receive a plastic trophy after the final game, an award for the simple act of turning up.

“I’m only coming next Saturday to get my trophy!” said Caitlyn* last weekend. Under-eight soccer usually sits somewhere between a babysitting service, the best fun ever, and for some players an endeavor to build skills – but Caitlyn’s attitude was new to this team.

Her excitement was laudable but some teammates called her out. The Purple Mermaids are about teamwork, not trophies, they said. Caitlyn thought about it. “I’m coming next Saturday!” she shouted. Kids say the darndest things.

The adult Caitlyns shouldn’t worry too much: the US women’s team are still ranked No1 in the world. But the incident speaks to a larger malaise embedded in the structure of the sport in the US: everyone wants a trophy just for turning up. And it is having an effect on the men’s team in particular. From top to bottom, American soccer is wrapped in a culture of cotton wool where no one is challenged, mediocrity is rewarded, and there are rarely consequences for failure.

This touches on a whole kennel of my pet peeves, not all of which are about soccer.  I don't talk about my children very much, because after all you've probably heard of them, what with them being the smartest and cutest kids in the whole wide world.

But like literally everyone else who has successfully experimented in human genome recombination, I gots me some opinions on parenting.  The above is a poor excuse for soccer analysis that even Deadspin would shrink from - well, no, maybe they wouldn't.  But as feeble as it is at soccer, it's even worse when it comes to children and play. 

You could take my word for it, because why wouldn't you?  But I strongly suggest that if you do have an interest in the topic, you check out "The Myth of the Spoiled Child," by Alfie Kohn.  For the purposes of this discussion, I recommend Chapter Four, "Getting Hit On The Head Lessons: Motivation, Failure, and the Outrage over Participation Trophies."  I'll be cribbing from that chapter more than a trifle here.

Literally in the first god-damned sentence, we are told that our author's epiphany came from a team in a god-damned participation league.  Mr. Guardian was apparently expecting a pigtailed Roy Keane to be breaking legs, despite seeming to have a fairly clear understanding of that league's actual aims.  He even knew about the plastic trophy in advance.  It was a little late to get home from the sardine store, take out the tin with "SARDINES" in huge letters, and complain about the fishy smell.

Mr. Guardian was also sufficiently involved in the lives of these girls to overhear amusing little anecdotes.  Which leaves us with two alternatives - "Caitlyn" was either his daughter, or his daughter's teammate.  In my opinion, it is crass to use your daughter's spur of the moment, and instantly disowned, faux pas as thinkpiece fodder.  Especially since you signed her up for the team in the first place, Dad. 

And if Caitlyn ISN'T Mr. Guardian's daughter, then Mr. Guardian is in no position to god-damned judge her.

The premise that Caitlyn's attitude adjustment would be rickety, even if she was the Kurt Cobain of the post-millennial generation.  What, exactly, is the cause and effect here?  Did Caitlyn see the garbage performances from the USMNT, and demotivated herself accordingly?  Or did Caitlyn, and the rest of her lazy-ass generation, cause the USMNT to question their own commitment?  "Why am I busting my ass," Michael Bradley and friends presumably asked themselves, "if Caitlyn can't be bothered to give a damn?"

You see, participation leagues - and ill-conceived bitching about participation leagues, but we'll get to that - are older than Michael Bradley, let alone Caitlyn.  If the Mermaid Fifth Column was truly sapping our bodily fluids all this time, well, how did we beat Mexico in the first place?  Let alone four times in a row at home in qualifying?

Furthermore, while one hates to bring gender politics into this, what are we to make of the US women's national team in this scenario?  Caitlyn is old enough to have lived through a World Cup win and an Olympic gold medal.  Clearly that wasn't sufficient to inspire her.  But then again, the US did flop out before the medal round this year.  Maybe Caitlyn's crappy attitude was the last straw.

And before you tell me I'm reductio ad absurding or manning the straw - I wasn't the one that suggested a holistic diagnosis of US soccer in the first place.  Even if Caitlyn is merely one cancer cell out of millions, we should probably see some actual correlation, let alone causation, before we are told to tremble at the idea of children playing without Suffering Consequences.

Because once again, we must tremble at the idea that children would enjoy play for its own sake.  Ranting about getting a trophy for just showing up would be a hoary, tedious cliché even in the hands of a gifted writer and analyst...which I'm afraid Mr. Guardian was not.  If you ever care to open yourself to a world of self-congratulatory dreck, simply enter "participation trophy" into your closest search bar.  You could probably write an example of the genre yourself by now.  We, our generation of philosophers and stoics, are watching our own children destroy all of our hard work by simply expecting trophies to be handed to them.

One of the things Kohn points out in "The Myth of the Spoiled Child," by the way, is that our parents said it about us.  And their parents said it about them.  And so forth back to literally Plato.  Probably Australopithecus africanus sneered at Homo habilis having to rely on stone tools for every little thing.

If every generation really was a degeneration - well, perhaps Mr. Guardian would be justified in using a simple fact of nature to knit together a stream of consciousness about American soccer.  But research suggests that griping about children playing, and getting participation trophies (or, as one might also call them, "souvenirs"), is wildly off base.  It's tempting to simply type out Kohn's entire chapter here, but hopefully this will help put the subject more clearly:

"Few practices involving children attract more scorn than giving some kind of trophy or recognition to all the kids who participate in an athletic contest rather than reserving prizes for conquering heroes.  It's not clear how common such participation trophies are, but the depth of rage stirred up by the idea is both indisputable and fascinating.  It began when the Internet was in its infancy, and it has reached the point that an online forum about virtually anything having to do with parenting or education is likely to include at least one comment that strays from the topic at hand to sound off angrily about 'trophies for just showing up.'"

If there was anything behind this chorus of disapproval aside from shoddy logic and blind emotion, then perhaps the calls to ban participation sports would be understandable.  After all, the stakes aren't just our men's national team crapping the bed in Central America, but the moral fiber of the nation itself.  It's a mystery why we haven't replaced AYSO with Aztec ritual sacrifice.

But, amazingly enough, this particular bit of received wisdom that just seems true, well, isn't.  Here's Kohn again:

"The widely held belief that humans are motivated by the prospect of receiving awards is based, it turns out, on an antiquated version of psychology constructed largely on experiments with lab animals....The idea that we do things mostly, or perhaps even exclusively, to obtain rewards assumes that there is a single thing called 'motivation' that is present or absent, that can rise or fall.  But in fact different kinds of motivation exist, which behave differently and have different sources....Intrinsic motivation is real, pervasive, and powerful.  Every time a child loses herself in creating an elaborate Lego structure, or asks for markers so she can draw a dinosaur, or writes a poem just for the hell of it, or persists in asking 'But why?' so she can understand something more fully, we're looking at another example of intrinsic motivation."

And again:

"The fact that participation trophies have never been convincingly shown to have any negative effects at all provides further evidence that the outcry over them has its roots in ideology more than in practical objections....Assertions of this kind are quite common, evidence for them is not merely rare but nonexistent."

The participation trophy is a lazy, stupid, tired trope that tells us nothing about competition, and worse than nothing about children.  It would be intolerable even if there was something to the idea that making children miserable would help the US men's national team.  But people who scream about participation trophies don't even have the facts on their side.  Mr. Guardian's asinine article is, in the words of Talleyrand, worse than a crime - a mistake.