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December 19, 2012 at 3:45 PM

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Ike's lessons lost if win-at-all-cost mentality continues at Snohomish

Mark Perry recently resigned as head coach of the Snohomish High School football team. His resignation was prompted by a small but highly vocal group of parents that believed Snohomish was not winning enough football games. So, after 18 years as head football coach, Snohomish High School said farewell to Mark Perry.

It is the opinion of this parent, and the majority of parents at Snohomish High School, that the circumstances surrounding his resignation were not only blatantly flawed but tragic.

High-school football is unfortunately dominated by coaches, community members and families that have come to see wins and losses as highly significant events in their lives. Perhaps people are motivated by the desire to put their son or daughter in the best possible position to attain a coveted Division I athletic scholarship. Perhaps they think that winning is the true measure of success and worth. Perhaps they are looking for the vicarious fulfillment of their own unmet dreams through their son or daughter.

Whatever the motivation, the need to win, and win at any price, has become an unhealthy obsession. Our high-school teams have become NCAA training camps and this has obliterated the real value of high-school athletic competition.

Snohomish was different, at least for a time. The school and its coaches taught and believed that participation in athletics provided lessons in sportsmanship, leadership and team work. They believed, as did athletic leaders of the past, that wins follow dedication, execution, focus and full participation on and off the field. They also taught and believed that winning was not the true measure of worth and that losses presented equally essential opportunities for lessons in perseverance, commitment and self-sacrifice.

Mark Perry’s resignation signals an unhealthy and unfortunate shift in how athletic competition – and possibly how a person’s worth – are measured.

I am particularly saddened by Mark’s resignation. I am the mother of the young boy with Down syndrome, Ike Ditzenberger, who played on Mark Perry’s team. With 10 seconds left in a 2010 loss to the Lake Stevens Vikings, Mark blew his whistle and guided Ike onto the football field.

“Just give him 10 yards, will you please?” were Mark’s words to the Lake Stevens players. The Lake Stevens players looked at Mark and without hesitation said, “We know what to do coach.” Without consulting their coach, they gave Ike a 51-yard touchdown.

At that moment, we all learned a lesson from Mark Perry and the young men on the Vikings team. It has nothing to do with winning or losing. It has everything to do with the development of compassionate, caring leaders who stood their ground and made a decision that was more profound and life-changing than any win could ever be. At that moment, the focus of the game and the priorities of the players were clearly not on winning.

When winning becomes the priority the values displayed by Mark and the Lake Stevens Vikings are lost. When the score at the end of a game becomes the primary focus of a team, students, families and community members lose.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book entitled, “Season of Life, a Football Star, a Boy, a Journey to Manhood,” author Jeffrey Marx tells the amazing story of Joe Ehrmann, 14-year NFL veteran, who now coaches and teaches about the destructive consequences of coaching and leadership based upon wins and losses.

“If you look over your life at the end of it ... life wouldn’t be measured in terms of success based on what you’ve acquired or achieved or what you own ... the only thing that’s going to matter is what kind of father were you, what kind of husband were you, what kind of coach or teammate were you ... success comes in terms of relationships.”

That is what Coach Perry taught and believed.

In 2008, our family arrived in Snohomish and our sons enrolled at Snohomish High School. After only a few days, our 16-year-old came home to report, “It’s different from other schools I’ve been in. At Snohomish High we’re all the same. There aren’t the rich and the poor, the beautiful and the not so beautiful, the smart and the not-so-smart kids, we’re all the same. Snohomish High School is a safe, easy, fun place to be.”

Will the treasure of a level playing field be lost due to the dismissal of Coach Perry? I hope not, but I fear it will.

When a servant leader is dismissed based on wins and losses, the message will not slip by students and their families. The tragedy is that a distinction has been made; a line has been drawn. Students and all that are watching can’t help but conclude that winning and losing do, in the final analysis, matter most. The message is clear: You have to win; compassionate, consistent leadership is not enough. We are making the not-so-subtle statement that wins are what ultimately count. And when that happens, we’ve lost our identity, we’ve lost our way. It’s seismic and it’s tragic.

Our family believes in this community. Snohomish and its citizens have demonstrated to us over and over again they believe worth is based upon who you are, not what you own or whether you have achieved enough wins to satisfy a success-driven society. They have shown us over and over that when life confronts us with decisions about whether to persevere in the face of economic, professional or relational challenges, perseverance and determination win.

Mark Perry’s leadership taught and demonstrated these values on and off the field. To have his influence diminished and replaced by a clear mandate to win is unthinkable and destructive. Our community needs to say, “Stop.” Stop celebrating renown, prowess and position based solely upon wins and losses. We need to make a public commitment to a community philosophy of hard work, dedication and commitment to the job at hand and teach that winning will inevitably flow from that effort.

We need to refuse to let a vocal minority define what winning means.

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