The following post was written by Jim Karpe a father, coach and advocate for people with disabilities in the New York City Area.
We must protect them from…[fill in the blank]. For example, failure. “We must protect these special needs children from failure—it will harm their self esteem.” Sound familiar? Coach Gary and I brought one of our NYC Special Needs soccer teams out to California for the National Games, to play against other special needs teams. And we got some surprises. We had expected to mow down the competition. Instead, we turned out to be the grass, not the lawn-mower.
First, a confession of dis-loyalty: I also coach Baseball. And I drill into my teams and parents "Baseball is about failure and redemption. You are going to strike out, and then later you are going to get another chance."
Turns out to be true of soccer as well. On July 3rd, we played tough games against competitors who out-weighed us and out-skilled us. In one game, our teen-agers were completely out-matched by a crew of young men in their twenties and thirties. Yes, they were special needs, but they also had, on average, a physical advantage of six inches and 70 pounds. And the carnage continued on July 4th. The Alhambra Phoenixes out-ran and out-scored us, even though we got an assist from the star mid-fielder of Montebello "Sharline the Machine". We made her an honorary NY Skyline team-mate-- she's the one in the red socks. She has excellent ball-handling skills, and got the ball down-field for us. But despite that, we still could not manage to finish it off, and once again were out-scored. Those are some of the triumphant Phoenixes off to the left.
We lost again. But played better than ever, with more coordinated team-work than ever-- more passing, more running down the field to help out a team-mate.
In our final game of the tournament, against Grenada Hills, it all came together. Everyone was involved, and everyone brought their "A" game. Gabby (#4) put on the after-burners. In the second half she put up three goals. Sean(#2) put up a couple of goals, despite persistent (un-called) holding fouls from Grenada #10.
AJ (#11) and Eli (#7 playing now in white NY t-shirt) ran and created passing opportunities which led directly to scores by Gabby and Sean.
Amanda (orange goalie shirt) did her usual excellent job as goalie, but with additional skills-- keeping her feet together to prevent the nutmeg-- and with more defensive assistance from Sandy and Angelica. The old Angelica (#8) came back to us, upping her pace from "saunter" to "merciless charge". Sandy (#3) intercepted the attackers on several vital occasions: Assessing the situation, timing her move and turning the ball back over to NY Skyline. It was a great game. Against a roughly equal opponent. Final score, seven to seven. But only roughly equal because our kids were putting in extra effort after facing-off against fierce competitors over the prior three games.
Failure plus effort leads to redemption. A familiar formula in sports, but often considered out-of-reach for special-needs players. All of us-- parents, coaches, buddies, on-lookers-- often feel that we need to protect them from the sharp jagged edges of reality, of failure. For example, the convention in VIP soccer is to not keep score. Unfortunately, in our zeal to protect, we cut off the opportunity to go through the rest of the arc. Failure comes first, motivating extra effort. And then redemption.
It was not the National Games we expected to have. Nothing close to what we planned. And it worked out great.
What does this mean for our soccer program? It is not that we will start arranging for all of our players to experience failure on regularly scheduled basis. As with so much of life, there is a balance to be struck. One size does not fit all, especially in the world of special needs. But for the parents and coaches of West Side Soccer League VIP, the experience in California has re-calibrated our thinking about the balance between protection and exposure.
So what will happen is a little more failure, a bit more exposure to the jagged edges. And consequently a lot more opportunity to experience the self-motivated change which leads to greater achievement. On the field, and off.