By Doug Abrams
In late June, Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrested a Vancouver youth hockey coach who was captured on video sticking out his leg to trip a 13-year-old opponent as the teams passed each other in the handshake line at the end of a summer league game. The coach, shown pointing accusingly at the tripped player, reportedly had trash-talked the boy throughout the game after he scored the game’s opening goal. The Vancouver Sun reported that the boy suffered a broken wrist, and the 19-second video has scored more than 2.2 million worldwide views on YouTube. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8aTDCZIhcY8).
Last year, a 16-year-old varsity football player in Washington Court House, Ohio placed a tack inside his glove and intentionally pricked the hands of 28 opponents in the post-game handshake line after his team had scored a 26-0 victory. All 28 opponents needed tetanus shots and blood tests from the county health department, and the juvenile court sentenced the player to 90 days’ confinement and 280 hours of community service for multiple counts of assault.
The Vancouver and Ohio incidents remind us that shoving, insults and similar incidents occasionally disrupt handshake lines following hard-fought contests in boys and girls games from coast to coast. Nearly all post-game handshakes proceed smoothly, but publicized incidents like these sometimes lead coaches and league administrators to suggest dispensing with handshakes altogether. Sometimes they suggest that teams conduct pre-game handshakes instead, before passions rise. These suggestions can arise in the leagues in which the incidents occurred, or in other leagues that seek to avoid potential problems.
Either suggestion would be a step in the wrong direction — an unwise overreaction — because handshakes enable parents and coaches to teach players important lessons about sportsmanship. Occasional breakdowns in handshake lines can be “teaching opportunities” that enable adults to talk with their children about what not to do. Sports can send youth leaguers the right message when adults embrace teaching opportunities that arise from negative events, but not when adults avoid these opportunities. Missed teaching opportunities teach nothing.
A Strong Tradition
The post-game handshake is a tradition in professional sports. At the end of each Stanley Cup playoff round, for example, hockey teams that have spent the entire series pounding each other nonetheless line up at center ice so that the losing team can recognize the winners.
One of the most iconic photos in National Hockey League history features Boston Bruins goalie “Sugar” Jim Henry shaking hands at center ice with the Montreal Canadiens’ Maurice Richard, who had just scored the winning goal in the final game of the 1952 Stanley Cup semifinals. Henry had played the third period with eyes swollen nearly shut after he took a shot squarely in the face, and Richard had returned to action early in the period after being knocked unconscious with a likely concussion.
One account described the post-game meeting between the two bloodied players this way: “As vicious as the seven-game encounter had been, the opposing players congratulated each other on a hard fought series. Milt Schmidt had his arm around Canadiens rookie Dickie Moore, whom he battled through the series, and the players all shook hands. The most memorable handshake came between Richard and Henry, who almost appeared to be bowing to the Rocket as he struggled to hang onto his goalie gear.”
The Jim Henry-Maurice Richard photo speaks for itself: http://www.habseyesontheprize.com/2012/4/8/2932519/recalling-the-rockets-greatest-goal
Hockey holds no monopoly on the handshake tradition. Boxers touch gloves at the beginning of a fight and embrace at the end. Tennis players shake hands at the net at the end of even the hardest fought matches. Football coaches meet at midfield and basketball coaches meet on the sidelines for handshakes as their players typically mingle with one another after the final whistle. In these and other sports, disruptions amid handshakes remain the isolated exception rather than the rule.
Lessons in Youth Sports
The post-game handshake tradition in youth leagues acknowledges what every youth leaguer, parent and coach already knows — that winning is preferable to losing. Players should strive to win, but post-game handshakes also teach them how to accept the final score gracefully, win, lose or draw.
Losing a tough game can be a bitter pill to swallow at any age, but overcoming the bitterness defines an athlete’s learning process. I would tell my youth hockey players that after losing a game, the proudest athletes shake hands and leave the ice gracefully with their heads held high so that a spectator who just arrived would not know which team won and which team lost. Players practice to win, but learning how to control emotions and remain dignified after a loss also takes plenty of practice.
Parents and coaches should give their players Olympic gold medal swimmer Amy Van Dyken’s advice: “The most important lesson I’ve learned from sports,” she says, “is how to be not only a gracious winner, but a good loser as well. Not everyone wins all the time; as a matter of fact, no one wins all the time. Winning is the easy part; losing is really tough. But, you learn more from one loss than you do from a million wins. You learn a lot about sportsmanship.”
“It’s really tough to shake the hand of someone who just beat you,” Van Dyken explains, “and it’s even harder to do it with a smile. If you can learn to do this and push through that pain, you will remember what that moment is like the next time you win and have a better sense of how those competitors around you feel. This experience will teach you a lot on and off the field!”
[Sources: Vancouver Hockey Coach Investigated After Teenage Player Allegedly Tripped, Vancouver Sun, June 28, 2012; Carey Vanderborg, Martin Tremblay, Minor League Hockey Coach, Arrested For Tripping 13-Year Old Boy On Ice, Int’l Business Times, June 28, 2012; Washington Court House Student Sentenced in Thumbtack Incident, Chillicothe (Ohio) Gazette, Dec. 7, 2011; Kevin van Steendelaar, Recalling the Rocket’s Greatest Goal, http://www.habseyesontheprize.com/2012/4/8/2932519/recalling-the-rockets-greatest-goal#comments ; Sportsmanship Quotes, http://www.internationalsport.org/nsd/sportsmanship-quotes.cfm (quoting Van Dyken)]