Sometimes, Fairness is Overrated

photo credit: taymtaym OKIMG_1015 via photopin (license)

I hope I’m many things as a coach.

Energetic. Understanding. Compassionate. Unfair. You heard me. Unfair. Because when I hear those words during practice, from the kids I love and teach and protect … “Coach, this isn’t fair!

I know the learning’s begun.

In my practices, we play small-sided games. Three against three. Four against four. No scrimmages. No full-field soccer. We set up little goals on the corners of the field, or balance a soccer ball on a cone, or three balls on three cones.

We challenge the kids to play normal soccer, but rather than shoot on goals, you have to knock the ball off the cone.

Or hit someone’s feet with a soccer ball. Or make four straight passes. Or knock over tall cones while others defend them. I want the defenders to send the ball out as far as they can. Get a little nasty even.

It’s not fair!

The rules change, constantly.

This goal’s worth 10 points. That one, 50. If you can hit this one on one touch, it’s 523. Soccer is about creating. Problem-solving. Expressing your athletic/creative side in the context of the game. It’s not situationally scripted, as in baseball.

Or football. Or softball.

I want my players to think. React. Learn. Solve. So when the 3 v 3 game becomes ordinary, I do like NASCAR: I change the rules on a whim. I’ll take a kid who scored and place him on the team he just scored against.

So 3 v 3 becomes 4 v 2, and that’s when the kids cry foul.

“It’s not fair!” No, it isn’t. And you’re welcome. Because when it’s 4 v 2, the view changes. Whether you’re the 4. Or whether you’re the 2. I want my players to know what it’s like to be the 4. 

That sounds harsh, and maybe it is.

I want them to play them out like a storm

They already know just because one gets to be captain, it doesn’t mean everyone else will. They already know that they might have more turns than the next player, or less, but that’s just how it is.

I’m not keeping score.

I’m not there to ensure fairness for everyone. I’m there to allow them to play soccer, yes, but I’m under no obligation to make this, even at age 7, a socialist soccer field in which everyone has everything the next player does.

I’m not trying to encourage a cutthroat approach to life or soccer.

It’s not about winning at all costs. It’s about recognizing that sometimes you’re the 4, and sometimes you’re the 2, and what matters is how you react to being the 4. Or the 2. If they know what it’s like to be the 4, they’ll know what it’s like to have an advantage.

To execute when the numbers are in your favor.

To audition for the play with confidence. To take that SAT with self-assuredness. To study and work out and run and strain and recognize their advantages, yes, but also play them out like a storm.

I want them to take on the world

I want them to play confidently when the advantage is theirs, on the field and off.

I also want them to know what it feels like to be the 2. I want them to feel the burden of disadvantage, to know to an extent that sinking feeling inside, to feel outnumbered, out muscled, exposed.

I want them to feel this in the safety of one of my practices.

I want them to feel those chambers click in their soul, the same chambers that unlock a resolve in them that might grit their teeth, maybe even snarl their lip, and spur them to team up as the 2 and take on the 4.

I want them to recognize their success, even in the tiniest of increments, and let it build inside them.

I want them to see those successes grow and multiply, for them to conjure up gumption and confidence and even pride. I want them to fight back on the 4, to match the 4, to maybe even defeat the 4, and feel like they could do the same against 6.

Or 8. Or the world.

What will you be today?

I want them to realize the power in trusting each other, and themselves.

I want them to realize there’s strength in the 2, and that it grows. I want to do many things as a coach. Teach. Inspire. Provoke. Love. And by assuring my players of nothing fair, but only of a fair shot to experience the game and learn the game.

In turn, experience and learn – whether they’re the 4, or whether they’re the 2.

Because in this world, you don’t know which you’re going to be today.Until you are.



  1. Well said! We try to teach “fairness” and yet the world at large, is not fair! And our/their expectation that they will always thrive in a world that isn’t fair, isn’t fair! The world is not our friend…We can’t always determine what will happen in the world, but we can determine how we will live in the world! You are a very wise man! Blessings.

    1. You know, I wondered if people would think I was too much of a hard-ass for taking this approach, but the kids don’t seem to mind. They adapt, they learn, they still have fun playing the game. They can handle things like late leads lost, penalty kicks and blowout wins much better as a result.

      They also know that win or lose, coach has their back.

      Thanks, Jenn.

  2. In this society of “everyone gets a trophy just for showing up” I think your approach is brilliant. Kids do need to learn the love of the game that comes from strategy, perseverance, come from behind struggle. Not everything in life is always even and fair. Not everyone gets to “play”, and the sooner they can figure that out the better!

    1. Thanks Kathy. I think I’d be doing the kids a great disservice if I didn’t do it this way. We prepare them many ways, but skills and game knowledge is only part of it. I run into my former players sometime, when they’re all grown up (OK, not ALL grown up, but older), and even if they’re not playing anymore, they have applied those lessons to their next chapter. I love that.

      They should know what it’s like to be on top, and down in the dumps, and know that either way, they’re going to be OK.

  3. Chris Carter says:

    EXCELLENT!!!! BRAVO!!!! MARVELOUS!!!!! Man, I like you more every day! I wish every man/coach had this perspective on the field…with their players. You are teaching them much more than soccer skills, you are teaching them how to live in this unpredictable world…and find their victory in themselves. AWESOME. Had to share… 🙂

    1. I loved practice tonight, because I could see that victory in themselves showing, and it made me think of this comment. It was a cold, awful night, but I’m so glad I didn’t cancel practice. This is the time of season all this stuff is beginning to show through.

      Dang, I love being a coach.

      Thanks for the kind words! The kids learn the lessons from me, of course, but I’m doing a great deal of learning, too.

  4. As the wife to a former soccer coach, I say….yes, yes, yes!! Another coach and parent that really gets it! Life is not always fair and the sooner our kids understand this, the better! Great job, Coach!

    1. Thanks for your perspective! I love that the team of 3 tonight going against the team of 4 almost felt like they had the advantage, and they fought like heck. I love it.

  5. Leslie says:

    I don’t even know what to say except that I feel stupid for grumbling about my kid’s coach not being fair.
    This is awesome advice Eli. And perfect timing.

    1. Don’t feel stupid – one pain that won’t ever go away is watching our kids play sports, and sometimes have setbacks or struggles or injustices, and having that desire to intervene and try and make things right. It’s not easy to hold back and remember that it’s only in the moment, that their athletics career isn’t going to always be smooth and kind and fair and clear. I have a feeling in your case that the kid will find resolve in what happened, and above all, remember that he loves the game first, middle and last.

  6. OhBoyMom says:

    Such important lessons, both for the kids AND the parents who are watching on the sidelines. Not everyone gets the trophy at the end — that’s life and the sooner kids learn that, the better. You sound like a coach who really wants to teach lessons both on and off the field, which can be a rare quality. As a mom to three athletic boys, I have seen many different personalities and coaching styles, but the ones who really care about development (skill-wise as well as mentally) are the ones who make the most lasting impact.

  7. Akaleistar says:

    There is so much sports can teach us, including the fact that life is not always fair.

    1. Eli Pacheco says:

      We can teach these lessons, though, only if we capture the moment – by letting cooler heads prevail. It’s easy to miss it.

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