B Teams, Self-Esteem, and Swimming in the “Biggest Pond”

Many parents, perhaps mine included, sign their daughters up for sports teams because they hope that “being good at something” will help them develop strong self-esteem.

If those were my parents’ intentions, things might have worked out fine for the first few years. I started playing soccer at age five, and I was decent for a rec. league player. But when I was eight, I joined a “competitive” (i.e. traveling, money-sucking) team, and it was readily apparent that I would not be a star.

On the first day of practice, I watched one of my new teammates casually juggle a ball off her thighs. I could tell that this was no big deal for her because she was simultaneously screaming the lyrics of “Who Let the Dogs Out?”. I was impressed.

A few years later, I was just starting to feel like I could keep up when we got word that our team would be merging with a much better team to form two new teams, an “A team” (for the strongest players) and a “B team” (for everyone else).

Of course I made the B team. I told you—I really wasn’t that good. But I was fine with this, until every other player on the B team decided to quit and join another club. I heard the mother of one of my would-have-been teammates explaining her daughter’s decision: “It’s not good for her self-esteem to be on a B team, and I don’t think it’s fair that they put all the best players on one team.”

Later that week, I sat on top of the washer as Mom folded laundry and helped me think through my options. If I left with the rest of the B team players, I would definitely see more playing time. Besides, most of my old team would be on the B team. On the other hand, that team wouldn’t be as good, the coaching would be of a lower caliber, and they wouldn’t have the opportunity to play at high-level tournaments, which require invitations. So my second option, my mom explained, was to talk to the coach of the A team and see if he would let me join.

Stealthily encoded (as is sometimes her way) in my mother’s presentation of my choices was a larger question: On what did I want to build my self-esteem? These were my options:

  • Have a decent shot at being a star on an overall less challenging team. (Result: Self-esteem would be strengthened due to being one of the best players on the team.)
  • Work really hard to be a second-string player on a great team. (Result: Self-esteem would be strengthened through the development of my identity as a hard worker.)

I was 11 years old. I don’t imagine I came up with that logic on my own. However, I do clearly remember using that logic to make my decision. It had to come from somewhere; I have no doubt that it came from my parents.

It’s important to clarify that if I had only been interested in playing soccer for fun, and not necessarily to be the best player I could, leaving with the rest of the B team might have been the right choice. But, I very much wanted to improve as a player, and I wanted to play at the highest level possible.

Predictably, the coach of the A team was at a bit of loss as to what to do with me. I wasn’t good enough to be on the A team, but I was the only remaining player on the B team. He had a generous spirit.

I hope this isn’t a disappointment, but no, I did not become the team’s leading scorer. For the last time, I really wasn’t that good. But, I did spend the vast majority of my free-time (outside of team practices) running and practicing on my own. In fact, my teammates  started to call me “Forrest” because of how much I ran—at least, I hope that’s why they called me that.

So if I rarely made the starting line-up, I also never got cut. I had no illusions about why this was. Through the Soccer Mom Gossip Network, I heard that my coach had explained to our team manager that he kept me on the team because I worked “too damn hard.” So, my self-esteem never crumbled when, despite my best efforts, I stayed on the bench. Instead, my self-esteem grew as I realized that I could earn respect, if not playing time, through my work ethic.

That said, if despite my attempts to explain why you shouldn’t, you’re still feeling sorry for me at this point, I can offer you this: A few years later, I finally caught a break. Our team suddenly found itself without a goalkeeper, having cut one before the other unexpectedly quit. My coach bought me some gloves and sent me to keeper practice. I had never played that position, but he figured I’d work to learn it. So here’s your happy ending: We won the state title at the end of that season, and I became a team captain shortly after.

I’m not sure where that medal is. I do know, however, how often I rely upon knowing how to work hard. I also know that while it would have been a lot of fun to be a star in those early years, in some ways, I feel lucky that I wasn’t. I’ve always been really competitive, and I think I would have had a difficult time not linking my self-esteem with being “the best.” And eventually, whether as a result of injury or age, that would no longer have been possible.

This is why I suspect that parents of remarkably talented (or, especially in our culture, remarkably beautiful) daughters may face a special challenge when it comes to helping their daughters develop self-esteem that is not only strong but based on the right things. Self-esteem that is built on enduring traits of character and personal integrity—traits like being a hard-worker, being brave, and being kind, for instance—may be harder to develop than self-esteem based upon beauty, wealth or success finding the largest pond in which one can stay the biggest fish. But I think that’s the kind of self-esteem we’d all like to have.



Photo credit, as always, goes to Joshua Williams (Dad). Fifteen years ago, pretty much everyone wore war paint with their soccer uniforms. Not sure if you remember. 

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