Parenting Blog / Sports

What Leicester City’s Premier League Title Challenge Teaches Us About Parenting

Claudio Ranieri Leicester CityPhoto of Claudio Ranieri from Leicester City’s Official Website

Sometimes a child must stand face to face with boredom in order to find new ways to play with old things.

This is part of a larger thought that came to me as I marveled at the accomplishments this season of Leicester City and their manager, Claudio Ranieri.

Wait, what? Who?

That’s right. As a parent, I see parallels everywhere. I can’t help but to see them even when I’m trying to shut my dad brain down and just enjoy myself. Someone will say something in passing or I’ll observe an interaction and bam! I’m right back in the parenting world. It’s a neat party trick to conjure up these parallels everywhere, even – and in this case, especially – in the sports underdog / feel good story of the year (decade? century??) in world football.

The big English Premier League football clubs like to spend their way out of problems. They like to buy expensive players with no open position in which to play them. It’s the sports world’s version of a special episode of Hoarders — all excess and waste, gluttony and thoughtlessness. And then, despite expensive rosters bursting at the seams with redundancies, they don’t rotate their players enough as they do battle in as many as four club competitions each season, forsaking the health and wellness of mind and body of their starting eleven AND all but ignoring the development of their own youth and academy prospects, all in an effort to push endlessly for trophies. Veteran players suffer, young players are stunted and coaches lose the dressing room and flame out spectacularly. These big clubs train hard on the pitch and study tactics and formations hard off of it. The result lately, in the case of massive football clubs like Chelsea and Manchester United, has been joyless, soulless and tired-legged football. They are going through the motions to succeed, but to what end? What does success mean if we’re miserable?

In parenting terms, this is the equivalent of the family who over-schedules and checks boxes by participating in an abundance of academic and extracurricular pursuits not necessarily for the betterment of the child, or even for the thrill of an experience, but to cultivate an image that may please college admissions officers or, a bit further down the line, human resource associates sifting through a pile of resumes inside uniform grey cubicles. This kind of demented papering-over-cracks longview often results in stressed kids sleepwalking through a joyless and relatively soulless childhood, all in the name of an unknowable zenith, some nebulous version of ‘success’. If you are able to prepay therapist invoices and prescription med refills, best do so now in addition to your 529 plan contributions, because I know how much you love prepping for your child’s future.

There is another way to achieve, define and find success. Let’s call this the Leicester City way under boss Claudio Ranieri. He values the role recovery plays in training, so his players go hard when they work on the pitch and then get 2 days off per week instead of the standard 1. Rest and downtime are as important to physical development as listening is to a good conversation. It can’t be all talk-talk-talking just like it can’t be all go-go-going. The mind and the body each need ample time to recover. Ranieri also smartly believes that “the most important thing a good coach must do is to build the team around the characteristics of his players” and he also made a pact with his players on day 1 as Leicester City boss, saying “I trust you. I’ll explain a little football ideas every now and then, as long as you give me everything.” By recognizing the individual skills and positive attributes of his team and playing to their strengths and by keeping the football wisdom and tactics enforcement to a minimum (something LVG at Manchester United could stand to learn), Ranieri has placed an emphasis on hard work, joyful football and creative self-expression on the pitch. He’s not shoving square pegs into round holes, and his team is responding!

If the management philosophy, transfer policy and coaching strategy at the bigger clubs is akin to the overscheduling parent and their harried child, Ranieri then is the parent who understands that he is raising a child, not a future college student or middle manager destined to spend day after day inside a uniform grey cubicle. He’s the parent who gives the child room to explore and free time to have imaginative adventures inside and out of the home. He is the wise adult who understands that sometimes a child must stand face to face with boredom in order to find new ways to play with old things. These parents don’t push their kid who loves painting to play the guitar instead because ‘playing the guitar might be better on a resume’ or because they themselves always wanted to play guitar but didn’t or couldn’t. No, wise parents give that kid a paint set, an easel and reams of paper, and say “go forth and paint!”

Don’t confuse the Ranieri way at Leicester City for a laissez faire approach. Ranieri and good, actively involved parents alike know that a serious emphasis must be placed on hard work and determination but only as a means of finding joy and hopefully success in whatever it is they are pursuing with an authenticity of purpose. This style isn’t even remotely about checking boxes to make others think you care about charitable work or studied your brains off to get good grades or worked extra hours in the gym to do well in athletics, it is about doing all of that caring, studying and working because you believe it will better you as a person, and in the case of Leicester City, better them as footballers.

The result so far as Ranieri and his Foxes approach the final third of the ’15-’16 Barclays Premier League seson is a team that is flying high atop the table, enjoying their football, and thrilling a set of Leicester City supporters who will hopefully pull a few of these same lessons out for themselves as they cheer their club on to glory this spring.

*Leicester City travel to North London to take on 3rd place Arsenal this Sunday. Tune into NBC Sports at 7 A.M. ET on 2/14/2016 to witness the next chapter in the greatest story in all of sports this year.

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