I checked the score at work and almost fell out of my chair. As time expired on the United States women’s opening round match in the World Cup, the USA held a daunting 13-0 lead over Thailand. I shook my head, smiled and braced for what I knew was coming.
Over the next 24 to 48 hours, pundits across the country and even the world weighed in on the lopsided affair. Some accused the U.S. of poor sportsmanship, running up the score and even worse. Others rose to their defense asking a question that technically doesn’t have a true answer.
When does winning move from just getting the victory to a place where it demoralizes a team?
Before we say too much, understand this column is being penned before this year’s World Cup ends. For all I know, the U.S. could get booted from the event early in the knockout round or they could go to the finals and add their fourth World Cup to their haul. And this game will be all but forgotten.
My problem with the naysayers is when do we draw a line and why does it seem to be so bad in team sports but never materializes in individual ones when one team gets dominated?
No one complained in Track and Field when Usain Bolt bested other runners time and again sometimes by huge margins and celebrated. If a figure skater is capable of landing multiple quad jumps in a routine, no one dares to say they are showing up the competition. When golfers win a major event by multiple strokes, the gallery and pundits applaud and rate their performances among the all-time best.
So why in team sports when one team dismantles another team, which may not be as good, do people feel it necessary to jump up and accuse the winning team of bad sportsmanship?
I understand some people felt the U.S. players celebrated a bit much after each goal even as the lead blew past 10-0. However, several of those players scored their first World Cup goals of their careers. These athletes have trained their whole lives for this stage and then asking them not to celebrate something that is close to a pinnacle achievement for them is asinine to say the least.
Maybe Alex Morgan could have muted her celebration on her fourth and fifth goal a bit. However, remember Morgan was hurt in the last World Cup cycle and didn’t get to contribute as much as the U.S. won. One of the many lessons sports teaches us is that there is no guarantee of tomorrow and even the best players can suffer career-threatening injuries. Just ask Kevin Durant about that.
While some pundits and media types took the team to task, the Thailand coaches and players didn’t. Yes, they were upset and it showed in their faces and the tears streaming down some of their cheeks after the game. If the U.S. were true jerks, as some people would want us to believe, then why were they taking time to go the opposing team, hug them and try to lift their spirits.
Maybe like Morgan or coach Jill Ellis said after the game that backing off would have been even worse than running up the score.
If you’ve played sports, most likely you’ve probably been there. In fact, you may have experienced both sides of this coin.
Growing up in East Tennessee, organized soccer came to town when I was in the third grade. I joined a team and my dad, who knew nothing about the game, coached us. In our second season, we faced a far superior team coached by a former collegiate soccer player, who stacked the squad with kids who looked like they had eaten their Wheaties and then some.
The game got ugly fast. At halftime, the other squad held a multiple-goal lead. When the final whistle blew, they had racked up 12 goals to our none. As we shook hands, the other players reminded us how bad they beat us. It stunk. But something else happened that day. Playing as an outside defender, I spent most of the first half playing scared, backing off and not challenging the other team’s offensive attackers.
I realized early in the second half that my strategy wasn’t working, so I shifted gears and pressured and harassed attackers with reckless abandon or as much reckless abandon as a nine year old can muster. While it didn’t stop all the goals, it changed the way I played the remainder of that game and games going forward.
In the next season, we faced the same team in a driving rainstorm. We got a few lucky calls, but we also played out of our minds. I’m certain every single one of us on the team remembered not only the thrashing but the opposing team’s attitude. Less than five months after the team drubbed us 12-0, we survived a late comeback to grab a 3-2 victory.
Our team finished as league runner-up that season, and I have no doubt to this day that 12-0 loss had a lot to do with it.
In a day and an age where we hand out participation trophies like we hand out candy to trick-or-treaters at Halloween, we face a daunting issue. Too many parents, kids, coaches and others get upset when they lose or when they lose big. The reality of life and sports is that there is always going to be someone better than you. The trick is not to find excuses or sling hate back when they initiate a smack down.
I was lucky enough to run in college for a Division I program. My junior year in high school, I got lapped in the sub region two mile. It wasn’t even the region finals, but the prelude to the finals, and I ran so bad that I wasn’t even an afterthought in the race. A couple of kids watching as I was among the last runners to cross the finish line that day even asked me why I was bothering to run, because I was so bad.
That loss and those words gave me plenty of fuel, and I trained hard the next two years. So hard, in fact, that I morphed from a fair runner to one good enough to walk on and compete for an SEC school. I’m not sure that happens without the sub region race.
Could the U.S. women have muted their celebration a bit? Yes, they could have but in the heat of the moment at the most important tournament in your sport, it’s hard to rein it in. They did try to pick up their opponents afterward.
At the end of the day, losing is part of life, even if it’s losing by a lopsided score. Thailand showed class in how they handled it, and I bet those players will work their tails off in the coming months and years.
The true test of a team, an athlete or a person is how they respond when things go wrong. Instead of complaining maybe it’s best to pick yourself up, dwell on the loss for a minute, learn the lessons and do your best to make sure it doesn’t happen again.