Sports aren’t fair. There are rules and regulations put in place in an effort to create a fair environment for two teams or individuals to play for a winner, however, those boundaries placed cannot account for human error.
The worst part is that in sports when a human error occurs- that’s it. There is no redo or callback. There is no ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘let’s make up’, what’s done is done and players and fans alike are left to deal with the emotional impact of the results.
Tragedy. A tragedy is defined as an event causing great suffering, destruction, and distress, such as a serious accident, crime, or natural catastrophe. In sports, when an official makes a game-changing call sometimes the deserving team comes out on top and sometimes the story becomes a tragedy.
I sat on the side of a turf soccer field in Wilmington, North Carolina and witnessed what my dad summed up in one word as a tragedy. On Saturday, my brother’s high school soccer team warmed up for a state championship match.
He is a freshman, and as a retired college soccer athlete, I am able to relive my glory days through him; if anyone were to ask, I taught him everything he knows.
The team was 21-1 going into the championship game with the conference championship already under their belt. They had scored 150 goals this season, 11 goals against. Needless to say, they’re good. Very good. And I can say that without bias because the numbers are proof enough.
The boys entered the state tournament with a small chip on their shoulder. In the tournament seeding, they were placed 4th- lower than teams with more losses and teams they had beaten during the season in head to head contests. This meant that the games past the quarterfinals would likely be played away, a significant disadvantage in the scheme of things.
Seeing as they had worked hard through the season to be in the place they were, it felt disrespectful to be knocked down a few spots. Regardless, the boys rolled through to the championship game with a 3-0 win against the 5th seed in the quarterfinals and a 4-2 win against the 1st seed in the semifinals.
The weather in Wilmington was perfect. Overcast and cool but not too chilly- really the exact weather you would ask for when chasing your first state championship ring. Let me tell you, these boys were ready to go. This is the moment they had been talking about since preseason.
The whistle blew indicating the start of the game and it started as any other game would. Passes connected, the boys moved around settling into the flow of the game, getting their mojo going.
Less than three minutes in, roughly ten yards from the top of the arch in our defensive half, our senior all-state center back challenged their offensive player for a bouncing ball with a high kick. The opposing team’s player goes down, without injury.
The whistle blows for a second time in the match followed by the referee jogging over to the place where the foul occurred- he reached into his pocket and produced a red card. The stands sat silent for a breath digesting the moment and then protest erupted.
For those of you who know soccer, you know the implications and excessive nature of the call. For those who do not, let me break it down for you.
When a player receives a red card, they must leave the field and are not permitted to play in the remainder of that match. You can get a red card by receiving two yellow cards, which then adds up to a red card, or you can be given a straight red card without previous warning.
“Sports aren’t fair. Life isn’t fair.”
When a player receives a straight red-card it means that not only does that player forfeit playing in the rest of the match, but also that the team cannot replace that player on the field- therefore, they must play a man down.
Straight red cards are given when there is an element of malicious intent. For example, if a player were to purposefully punch another, or if a player was to use derogatory language towards the referee.
A yellow card is given when there is an unsportsmanlike or dangerous play involved, for example, a high kick that takes away a scoring opportunity for the offensive team.
Any rule is not black and white, context must be considered. In this case, making a call that effectively determined the story of the remaining 77 minutes of the match would require an extreme offense. Furthermore, our player had no malicious intent and the other team’s player was not injured in the tackle. The referee’s call at that moment was an injustice.
When a team goes down a player, their original scoring power is decreased by 33%; whereas, the team with all 11 players on the field experiences their original scoring ability increase by 25%.
In the end, after going down two goals and coming back to tie the game up, my brother’s team lost in the last quarter of the match 3-2. They lost a game they should have never lost because the referee made a call that unfairly determined the flow of the game.
Any team can win on any given day, this is the brutal honesty about the beautiful game.
It’s one thing as an athlete to lose a game to a better team, it’s another thing to process an undeserving loss. These boys have poured hours of afterschool time into preparation for these moments, and for most of them, have been preparing most of their lives for a moment like this because in life you only have so many chances at a state championship.
Having that moment unfairly taken from you impacts more than just the school’s trophy case. There are psychological effects and emotional processing that takes place.
An athlete experiences a significant emotional connection to their craft. Their sport is like a relationship they have been in and built up for years. This is why when college or professional athletes end their career it’s an incredibly difficult transition- it’s basically the same thing as experiencing a breakup of a long-term relationship.
When a game holding the weight and significance of a state championship results in a loss, there is more loss involved than just the match result. It cuts deep. The boys must individually mourn the game and deal with the ruminating effect that reliving a hard loss brings asking yourself if you could have done something different.
When experiencing grief or hardships of any kind, a support system is key. This is one of the most unique aspects of sports. When you lose a game that you shouldn’t have all of the team members walk off the pitch carrying the same weight and grief.
It is a shared suffering as they have all put in the blood, sweat, and now, tears, building toward that moment. Experiencing something so emotionally weighty bonds players together in a way that cannot be replicated.
Teams who experience a loss like that together immediately create a built-in support system within the team. Furthermore, players need to have a healthy support system outside of their team to help them work through the grieving process.
When processing a loss, anger, or grief, reconciliation is an important step. In therapy often times clinicians will use tools such as writing a letter, speaking to an empty chair, reaching out to those involved with forgiveness and other methods to allow an individual to express themselves in a way directed to reaching a feeling of reconciliation between those involved and working towards a desired state of acceptance.
This step is key to finding the ability to internally process difficult moments and move forward. In sports, reconciliation is hard to find. In a game when a referee makes a call, even if it’s a wrong one, there is no going back.
Today in professional sports, there are replays and goal-line technologies to help account for this. However, such technology does not exist for lower level matches.
Furthermore, there is no replaying a game; no way to appeal a call, and no way to recreate a moment. There is no outlet for obvious reconciliation which means that the players must work through the grieving process without it.
Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress. Showing resiliency occurs in two moments in a game; once immediately after a call and the other in the aftermath of the match.
When a call is made that changes a game, the players who are left on the field must bounce back in the moment, after all, the game must go on. Great players are ones who not only have the personal strength to continue play with caliber but who also channel the negative emotions toward motivating the team forward.
Great players adjust to adversity on the fly. This ability is a skill.
The second time resiliency in sports shows is after the final whistle blows and in the following days. Often times, emotional wounds like this loss leave as much of a scar as a physical injury and require just as much ‘physical therapy’ work after.
“Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity…”
Getting back out on the field, continuing to pursue the game that knocked you down. Wearing the emotional scar in every future match. Continuing on knowing that the game isn’t fair builds a resiliency in an individual that nothing else can provide.
I know firsthand what it is like to lose hard games and to win great ones. My personal soccer career brought me plenty of grief but also provided me with a support system that only comes out of losing and winning together as a team.
I carry emotional scars from soccer that will never really heal, but just seem to get more distant. The way soccer molded me through the ups and downs built in me a resiliency that I am forever grateful for.
Sports aren’t fair. Life isn’t fair. To those boys who played alongside my brother on Saturday, I am sorry for the injustice that occurred. There will be mourning and it will be hard but know that within your team there is a built-in support system that you can lean on.
At the end of the day, the athlete who learns resiliency is the one who takes away more from the game than what any trophy provides. And to my younger brother, I am immensely proud of you, kiddo.