By now you have probably watched the two Marble Falls, Texas high school football players blindside the referee (if not you can watch it here), a horrific incident that is quickly becoming the new “low” for youth and interscholastic sports. In essence, two young men assaulted an unknowing adult, and it appears the actions were taken in response to an earlier bad call. Thankfully, the intentionally aggressive actions taken by these two kids are not representative of the sportsmanship displayed by millions of young athletes who play sports the right way and without intent to purposely harm opponents (or referees). Still, the story does need to be examined with closer scrutiny so that it can become a “teachable moment” for us to learn from moving forward.
The details of this story are still coming in, and as of this moment it is unclear whether the perpetrators were directed by a coach (or another adult) to take out the referee, or acted on their own. The latest reports reveal that the case is being reviewed by authorities, which will inevitably lead to any legal consequences to be doled out to the kids and/or coaches involved. That aside, there are also psychological and sociological aspects to this story that should be discussed in an attempt to learn from what just happened. A few of the immediate talking points include aspects around role modeling, understanding the differences between bad calls and wrong calls, and teaching kids how to minimize hostile aggression while using instrumental aggression when it is appropriate.
- Role modeling. If it is found that a coach directed this hit, it should be quite obvious that he should not be involved coaching kids in youth sports (he will likely also face stiff legal penalties I would assume). “Role modeling” in sports is often interpreted in many different ways, but what everyone should agree on is that it is never acceptable to direct kids to take the game into their own hands and “even the score,” so to speak, with an opponent or referee. In fact, savvy coaches can use unfair game situations to help teach kids about self-control, managing stress, developing coping mechanisms and improving resiliency rather than resorting to cheap shots.
- Bad calls v. wrong calls. It is important for coaches to teach their players the difference between a bad call (a call that a referee simply missed) versus a wrong call (when a referee misunderstands a situation on the field and applies the wrong penalty). Neither type of call warrants retaliation, obviously, but it is important for coaches to understand the differences between the two and react/respond accordingly. With bad calls the only thing to do is accept them and realize that even professional referees blow calls from time to time. With wrong calls, it may be possible to later protest a game or take other constructive action (i.e. speak to a league authority) so that future errors will be minimized. It is important to teach kids how to handle both types of calls, and to emphasize that it is never acceptable to take things into your own hands.
- Hostile v. instrumental aggression. Sport psychologists have identified two types of aggression in sport – hostile and instrumental. Hostile aggression is the type of aggression that is specifically designed to harm (like what we just witnessed the Texas football players do to the referee). Instrumental aggression, however, is the type of aggression that is appropriate in sports and helps with on-field success (when a football player sacks an opposing QB). It is important to understand the differences in these types of aggression and teach both to kids so that they understand, too.
Admittedly, it’s difficult to find a silver lining while watching an adult referee get intentionally leveled by two kids, but it is examples like this that can serve for powerful teachable moments for everyone involved in youth and interscholastic sports. Emotions are often very high during games, but that doesn’t make it right to direct kids to intentionally harm opponents and/or referees. If it turns out these two kids acted alone and without direction from a coach, it is still important that they (and their teammates) are taught how to understand and embrace sportsmanship and why playing with fairness and integrity is so important to the overall sport experience.