After a long season of training hard, pulling on the boots on the most miserable of days and pouring over the dreaded video analysis, it was pleasing to watch the local under 13’s football team cement their place at top of the table. They were favourites to bring home the silverware and so it was surprising to see this fine young team lose the biggest game of their lives. What was just as surprising was the scandal that emerged on Mad Monday- the winning team had dropped their average week-in, week-out players in favour of some star footballers whom hadn’t played six games, the league’s minimum number of matches to qualify for finals. The philosophy is not a new one, but does dropping the bad for the unqualified good have a place in junior sport?
Letting children be dropped for the grand final only to be replaced by a peer more skilled is sharing a poor message to these impressionable kids. It questions the role of hard work and encourages the idea that raw talent can get you anywhere. It demoralises the confidence of those young sportspeople who need every ounce of inspiration and experience. These developing athletes are denied the opportunity to play in what is probably, for the most of them, going to be the pinnacle of their sporting success. Most importantly, this principle tends to forget a crucial message of sport: Winning is not everything. There is more to life than being number one.
On the other hand, what’s one game in the grand scheme of things? A lesson just as important as the message of hard work is the one that sometimes we need to ‘take one for the team’. In times of need, we can’t be selfish but instead think about our team, our club, our town, and let someone else finish off the job successfully. You have still played your part and should be recognised as fully as the bloke beside you. You have simply recognised the favourable outcome and sourced the best tools for the job. And who knows, the lack of playing time may even give you motivation to train harder next year.
Let’s look at the AFL. With the match of all matches, the great Grand Final, this Saturday, some unlucky footballers will be missing out. Hawthorn’s Tom Murphy will most likely miss the clash as skipper Luke Hodge slots back into the side. In an interview, Murphy said: ‘There’s probably 27 or 28 blokes who can legitimately make a claim to play, and there’ll be 22 that play in the end…When you’re at a strong club, there’s pressure for spots. ”
But at junior footy level, where the emphasis should be on participation not premierships, is there a place for dropping the less skilled kids? Unlike Murphy, some of these young boys play week in and week out, only to find themselves not playing in the most exciting game of their young lives. Grand finals are hard to come by, is it a better memory to play in a losing grand final or sit on the bench and watch your stronger mates take home the silverware?
One of the young footballers from this U13 grand final says it would ‘really suck’ to be dropped for more a skilled yet unqualified player. He said: “You’ve put in a whole season of work and just because they’re better than you they get put in.” He also explained that even though it was only an under 13’s match, it does matter. ‘If an eight year old hits an eight year old, people will just say “oh they’re just eight, it doesn’t really matter”. But it does matter because they could grow up and think it’s okay [to hit someone]. So you can’t let 13 year olds cheat because when they’re older they might think it’s okay to cheat to win.’
He would, however, still feel happy winning under these circumstances but described it as ‘cheap’.
Clubs allowing players to drift into lower-ranked teams for the sake of winning trophies need to take a good, hard look at themselves. We all know that at the end of the day it’s not about the medals and flags, but the messages learnt. Our young Australian footballers won’t be playing the game forever, but indeed carrying their morals and memories for the rest of their lifetimes.