This week a Grinnell College sophomore basketball player, Jack Taylor, set the NCAA single-game scoring record with 138 points. Not only did Taylor set the NCAA mark for most points in a game, he also set records for most field goals made in a game (52), most field goal attempts in a game (108), most 3-point field goals made in a game (27) and most 3-point attempts in a game (71). When asked how he celebrated this achievement, he laughed and said, "Well I’ve mostly been doing interviews, so I haven’t had time to celebrate." Such is the nature of instant fame in our world of rapid media. So many professional basketball players were tweeting about him that he had to get his first Twitter account. This attention will wane and dissipate. In a week he’ll return to his normal life being a guard supporting his teammates as the college basketball season moves into conference play.
These kinds of accolades are the stuff of dreams. As we watch our tiny limbed pre-schoolers prance across the field — chasing down the ball, falling in pig piles as a dozen legs get entangled and scoring in the wrong goal — we hold out the image of that same child growing into a Landon Donovan or an Abby Wambach. If they don’t morph into a professional player, we hope they will at least have one amazing season or one amazing game. We cringe when they are on the bench, we have anxiety attacks when they are on the field, we second-guess coaching decisions and we have a love-hate relationship with the refs. Before our kids reach middle school, we envision their future soccer life with both hope and certitude.
Since Thanksgiving just finished, we all know the strength of gratefulness for even the small gifts of life. Breaking a single-game basketball scoring record won’t be an option for our children. It took nearly 50 years to break the previous record. Therefore, we need to rejoice in the small accomplishments that everyone makes every day. Although we may have dreams of big achievements in our kids’ lives, their achievements won’t be as spectacular as Jack Taylor’s. And even Taylor will return to his ordinary level of excellence moving forward. Instead of constantly striving for some future feat of success, we should be concentrating on what our kids are doing now. There’s plenty to be proud of, we just need to remember to take notice and deliver our praise. Some superb methods exist to insure that our kids hear our pride.
Post-a-notes come in sports designs. Keep a pack on hand to scribble out some encouraging and supportive words to your young player. You can stick these on the back of the front seats where they can find them on the way to a game or on their soccer bag, even on their soccer ball. The messages can be short and sweet: "Good luck!" "You are a star," "We love watching you play," "Your team rocks!" You can be fairly inventive in how you use the notes, including creating a soccer treasure hunt with encouraging words or doing sequential rhyming phrases ala Burma Shave on the route from bedroom to car prior to a game or practice: "You dribble the ball / with speed and skill / like a streak of lightning / that creates a thrill!"
Make yourself a promise that the first words out of your mouth after a game, no matter how horrible a defeat, will be praise. It’s not as easy as it seems. Those moments after a disastrous loss leave such a sour taste in our mouths that we often spew it out in tough talk. When our children are under age 12 these games come and go like the clouds. We need to find the fun in the game so our children can continue to have fun. For our really young kids, it’s usually easy to laugh at the funny mistakes they make on the field, but eventually we start taking it all way too seriously. Scoring in the wrong goal or falling down every time our kid kicks the ball is no longer funny or acceptable. But I would ask, why not? Sure, we want them to grow as players, but until they become teenagers they are still learning the perimeters of their bodies and their brains are only able to retain so much of the rules and expectations of the game. For example, how many of you really know what the offside rule is or the various substitution rules? Rather than criticize, identify that moment in the game that was actually fun and make it your opening remark when the game is over. Remember the good things your child and the team did so you can focus on those rather than the mistakes and/or the loss.
Of course, acknowledging achievement doesn’t need to be limited to soccer or sports in general. Create a "wall of fame" in your kitchen or family room to showcase anything that you or your child finds special: a perfect spelling test, an art project, a poem, an improved grade in math or an award. Rotate the exhibit monthly so that small things are noticed with the same interest that an incredible achievement would be acknowledged.
This is, of course, the point — that our children need not operate at some extravagant level to gain our respect and approval. Certainly impressive accomplishments can get an added level of attention. But we can’t concentrate on those exclusively because they will come intermittently. We need to build a strong foundation of support grounded in all the ordinary but still noteworthy small events of their lives. We may never have a child who has to worry about delaying celebration because of media interviews, but we all have children who crave our validation. We have to pay attention to those small incidences that our children consider significant. They know the big things warrant praise, but when we honor the small stuff we give them the confidence to strive for greater achievements. After all, there is no small praise, only big omissions in what we notice and admire.