At approximately 2:30 p.m. Saturday, the NEP Wildcats mites team watched as the clock reached zeroes and the final buzzer sounded in their game against the Brent Raiders.
Both teams lined up at the 50-yard line. Coaches intermittently scattered throughout the line with the cheerleaders filling in at the end of the line. The two teams, which had just fought against each other for 90 minutes, shook hands and offered each other words of praise and encouragement.
“Keep working hard.”
“Good luck the rest of the season.”
Whether the score was 60-0 or 6-0, the players always fall in line, game after game, taking turns congratulating their opponent on a hard-fought game.
It’s that way week in and week out. It’s been that way for as long as I’ve been involved in sports.
It’s that way in every level of youth sports, from the 4-year-olds in soccer to the 18-year-olds in high school.
Well, it’s been that way until now.
As of Friday night, in Escambia County, postgame handshakes are a thing of the past.
As an experiment, school officials got together and decided to limit the traditional handshake to coaches and captains only, while the rest of the team heads to their respective endzone or locker room.
Escambia County is not the only county doing this. It’s happening in several areas of the state, as well as other parts of the country.
Folks, we’ve lost our way.
I think we’re teaching the exact opposite of sportsmanship by doing away with the postgame handshake. Having played sports my entire life and having continued coaching youth sports, I’ve been involved in probably hundreds of postgame handshakes.
Many of them have been on the winning end. Quite a few of them have been on the losing end. It’s not fun to be walking down the middle of the field after a loss, congratulating the very team that just beat you.
But I think it’s necessary.
I think it hammers home that it’s just a game. Win, lose or draw (yuck!), we all just played a game, and hopefully we all just had a little bit of fun doing it. And there’s nothing wrong with congratulating the other person.
I’ll be the first to admit that I have come unglued on the sideline. I may or may not have yelled at a referee this season (Sorry about that 15-yard penalty on Saturday for yelling at you, Mr. Ref). There’s probably been a time or two where myself and another assistant coach didn’t see eye to eye.
But when the buzzer sounds and the game is over, there’s nothing more I can do. The fight has been fought. You’ve either won or lost. Do so with grace and humility.
It’s up to us as adults to reinforce that. It’s up to us to make OUR kids understand that it’s a part of life. Things will not always go your way.
You don’t pout in the postgame handshake line. You don’t gloat. You don’t start a fight because you’re mad that you lost and that person on the other side is, gasp, smiling because they just won.
Doing away with the postgame handshake is not the answer. And trust me, I completely understand why school officials are experimenting with this idea.
I’ve been on the field when a postgame brawl has broken out. I’ve covered a basketball game where I had to dodge chairs as they whizzed by my head. I understand that it’s a concern that in the heat of the moment, right after a close, hotly-contested game, that tempers may flare.
But going our separate ways is not the answer. That just festers animosity.
I don’t know what the answer is, honestly. But I do know where we can start. We can start by suspending players who step out of line in the postgame handshake. Suspend them for the next game. Suspend them for the remainder of the season if their act is of a malicious nature.
Because if they’re that passionate about the outcome of a game, then the last thing they want is to not be able to play that game because of their actions.
The Florida High School Athletic Association requires schools to continue filming until both teams have left the field. That should make it easy to point out the culprits. And whether you threw the first punch, or you decided to mock your opponent, the punishment should be the same.
You want to incite a brawl, you pay the price. You want to join the brawl, you pay the price.
Eventually, the players will learn. Or they won’t be on the team anymore, and in that case, problem solved.
Frankly, we need to stop babying our kids. They need to know that, yes, they will lose in life. Yes, there will come a time, no matter who you are, there will be someone that will be better than you.
Win gracefully, lose gracefully.
Because at the end of the day, you’re still only playing a game. So try to enjoy those moments while you still have them. And don’t be afraid to congratulate the other person after a loss. Don’t be afraid to console and encourage the other person after a win.
Ultimately, that’s what determines whether you’re a winner or loser, not what the scoreboard says at the end of the game.