Every year, every season, teams start out as undefeated. In middle school athletics, no one generally thinks about being undefeated until after their team at least wins a few games. However, at my school there is a tradition of memorializing an undefeated team by hanging a banner in our gym. The banner lists the team, the year and the team’s final record for the season. By the end of the first practice, all of the players, including the new ones, are aware of this tradition.
Our boys’ soccer team hadn’t had an undefeated season since 1996.
Some could argue that this tradition is bad… too much emphasis on winning and results. While others could argue that this tradition is good… setting a common team goal and focusing a collective outcome. Personally, I do not have strong feelings either way. During a typical season, the thought of having an undefeated season is eliminated somewhere along the way. For most players, it’s no big deal, but for a few, it can be a crushing bus ride home after the first loss of the season.
The good that happens during the course of an undefeated season is abundant… it energizes athletes, creates competitive practices, helps with growing confidence in abilities, becomes a source of pride, cements a group and creates extreme excitement about the next game. This season, our team was so good that we dominated many games. As a result of our team’s strength, every player on the squad (varsity players and JV alike) got to play in many of the varsity games. With the outcome of the varsity games decided so early in the contest, our players often felt free to be more creative in how they played and to take risks.
Players pushed their personal limits and took their games to the next level. Inexperienced players thrived under these circumstances and grew in their abilities in ways that a normal season doesn’t allow. No mistake about it, there is much good that comes of an undefeated season.
The bad aspects of an undefeated season are manageable, but still exist… when one team dominates a game from the outset, there is little opportunity to find coaching moments related to game time experiences. On occasion, there were chances to point out some of the rules of the game, offsides being one. But generally, when you are ahead by 5 goals, there is little need for strategy or tactical coaching. During many games, there was a preoccupation with balancing each starting athlete’s desire to play, with the objectives of sportsmanship and respect for the opposition. The fine line between “running up the score” and competing fairly can be crossed very quickly. Needing to pull your starting players from a game because they are too good is definitely one of the challenging aspects to an undefeated season. Players are on the team because they want to play. They work hard in practice, and this conditioning enables them to play the whole game. The balancing act of finding the proper amount of playing time for each player is no fun. Ultimately, players understand sportsmanship, but they’d like to “score just one more goal” before they are pulled out of the game.
The sight of the new undefeated season banner will trigger fond memories for many. For me, it reaffirms the reasons I coach. Not losing a game all season is definitely an accomplishment… it is a testament to our athletes. For me, this banner will forever trigger the thoughts of teamwork and joy. Unselfish teamwork is what truly made this collection of very good athletes perfect… and their perfection ended in a moment of pure joy, unlike any that I’ve ever witnessed. As time expired on our last game, every player ran onto the field, creating a massive undefeated group hug.