BY ALEX HOLT
When Dan Gilligan received an e-mail from D.C. United a little over two weeks ago, saying that the team he coached, the Takoma Titans, had won the National Capital Soccer League’s 2013 Sportsmanship Award, he wasn’t sure what it meant so he asked Howard Kohn.
Kohn, NCSL’s Takoma Park club representative, told him that the D.C.-area youth soccer league gives out an award for sportsmanship to one or two teams at each of its age levels and the Titans were one of the two U10 winners for the Spring 2013 season.
The Takoma Titans, playing with sportsmanship. Photo by Alex Holt.
On October 4, the Titans, along with eight other NCSL teams, including fellow Takoma Park side Real Takoma, will receive free tickets to D.C. United’s game against the Chicago Fire, where they will get to meet a D.C. United player, pose with the MLS Cup and be recognized on the field at halftime. For Gilligan and Real Takoma coach Steven Young, the awards, based on sportsmanship points determined throughout the season by game referees, represent a validation of their efforts to teach their teams to play the game fairly and by the rules.
Gilligan said he tells his team to live by three rules: make yourself better, make the team better, make the game better. For Gilligan, that means things like helping a player from the other team up if you knock them down, lining up and shaking hands with the other team at the end of the game, win or lose and shaking hands with the referee and the opposing team’s coach.
The Real Takoma soccer team. Photo by David Groberg.
Gilligan said he wants his team to take several lessons from playing soccer, especially learning to be “good young men”, learning to be part of a team and taking care of one’s teammates. But he also tries to emphasize to his team that sportsmanship and competition aren’t incompatible.
“We play the game hard, we play a pretty physical game, but we try to play it in a clean way,” Gilligan said. “We teach the boys you put your body on the other player but without a push. You play very hard but in a friendly way.”
Mary Jane Breinholt, the Titans’ manager, said another reason for the Titans’ sportsmanship may be that they’ve been playing together for so long.
“The core of the team’s been playing since preschool together,” Breinholt said. “They’ve remained best friends, even though they go to different schools now and I think that makes a difference on the field.”
Takoma Titans practice session. Photo by Alex Holt.
Like Gilligan, Young said he makes sure his players always treat their opponents with respect but he stressed that he also tries to let them figure out decisions on the field for themselves.
“I let the team deal with all that and coach through their playing,” Young said.
For example, one of the Real Takoma players has asthma so Young lets the team explain that to their opponents.
“I let the boys speak to their players so if he has an asthma attack, they know to stop,” Young said. “That’s just good sportsmanship.”
Smart and safe
Young also teaches his team that not playing smart can be dangerous.
“It’s not only dangerous to yourself but to other players,” Young said. “If you do a bad tackle, you could injure yourself or the other player so early on in the season, I made sure that the boys are smart in what they’re trying to do.”
Takoma Titans. Photo by Alex Holt.
Both coaches said their teams are extremely excited about winning the award and getting to go to a D.C. United game.
“They’re ecstatic,” Young said. “When I told them, their faces just lit up with happy smiles.”
“They’re really excited!,” Gilligan said. “They’re really, really excited. They’re very proud of winning the award.”
And as Breinholt pointed out, part of what makes the Sportsmanship Award so notable is that the NCSL didn’t remind the teams that referees were determining sportsmanship points for the award during the games.
“They don’t tell us,” Breinholt said. “They don’t tell managers or coaches or players that they’re doing this. So it’s not like the team are on their best behavior to help win (the award), which I think is more honest. It’s a better gauge in terms of measuring sportsmanship.”