By KEN WELLS, LPC
“Learn and obey the rules very well, so you will know how to break them properly—“ The Dalai Lama
Danny Almonte was the talk of the Bronx during the summer of 2001. With his high leg kick and a fastball that reached a top speed of 76 MPH (the equivalent for that distance of a 103 MPH major league fastball), Danny became a summer sensation. His imposing frame won him the nickname of “Little Unit”- a reference to Randy “Big Unit” Johnson. He pitched a perfect game in the World Series, the first since 1979. He led his team to a 3rd place finish in the Little League World Series. His team was referred as the “Baby Bombers”because they played in the shadows of Yankee Stadium. They quickly became the feel good story of the 2001 Little League World Series. During a Yankees game after the Series they were honored by Mayor Rudy Giuliani with the key to the city.
However, rumors about Almonte’s age swirled during the World Series and were quickly confirmed that he was 2 years too old to legally play Little League. It was soon learned that his father Felipe had falsified his records so that he could play. ESPN called Felipe Almonte “the worst stereotype of the Little League parent sprung to life”
Parents want to mean so well yet contribute to problematic dilemmas for their kids around sports. Rule breaking is an age old practice that most often originates with mom and dad in so many subtle and overt ways. Parents want their kid to shine so bright on the field. They will do almost anything to get their child in the spotlight.
During my boyhood days of Little League, I never witnessed a fight between players while playing the game. However, I did watch three different fights between parents and my coach. Coach Bernie Nale was fair to the players and stubborn and cantankerous with parents who did not like how he played their kid. During the three times it got intense between coach and parent, Bernie called each dad out for a fight. Parents and coaches can be idiots when they lose their perspective about the game. It’s from this viewpoint that Little League baseball can lose its focus and purpose in a kid’s life.
I’ve watched a lot of parents attempt to fulfill their unlived lives through their children. One dad would try to give last minute hitting advice every time his kid was in the on deck circle. His son was a senior in high school when this happened. Other parents have gotten into a major argument with the coach for playing their kid in the wrong position. It was argued that the coach was screwing up their son’s opportunity for a college scholarship. The boy was 10 years old, playing Little League.
I have been guilty in my own way. In that I was given very little support toward any direction as a kid, I vowed that I would always be there to support my kids no matter what. I sacrificed to provide a batting cage with lights in the backyard and the best fitness training, hitting/pitching mentors that I could find. My boys knew that we did not have a lot of money. The message they got in strong non verbal language was “be a good baseball player”. I emphasized that they be the best at whatever they chose to do. But the underlying theme was loud and clear about baseball. It was out of balance and an unfair emphasis. I have learned that messages like this contribute to a kid’s distorted view about life and what is really priority. Parents who try to live out their dreams through their kids cultivate a rule breaking mentality by overemphasizing the need to succeed through their self sacrifice and promoting the sport and the kid to take up way too much space. When mom and dad sacrifice disproportionately so the kid can succeed it fuels and entitled mentality. The link to rule breaking is short and occurs frequently. It is birthed from a conditioned mentality that expresses “I want what I want when I want it”
Most addicts I treat come to therapy with holes in their soul created by unmet developmental needs that were designed to be met by their parents. Those needs were not to be a good baseball player or particularly good at anything. The need was to know that they mattered to their parents. Providing food, shelter, clothing, education and tools to be a good baseball player or anything else might say they are loved but not necessarily that a kid matters. Parents have a hard time equating and understanding this. Kids need their parents to crawl inside their head and just understand them—know what makes them tick inside. The psychological term is called attunement. Essentially, they need a mom and dad to participate with them on their terms, their agenda in sufficient amounts of time. It is crucial to understand a child’s agenda of importance without superimposing yours. Kids need ongoing information from their parents about how to cope with friends, cliques, bullies, romance, sex, failure and success and a hundred other situations. They need mom and dad to role model how to fight fair and address an array of situations that involve conflict. When it does not happen it is traumatic to every kid.
Developmentally, when these needs are not met, kids become like Swiss cheese with holes in it. They try to fill up the holes by finding out what is important to mom and dad and accomplishing that. This occurs subconsciously. It could be showing off when they are little, being “the princess” or “little man” of the house, being successful in school, being obedient to a fault or being successful in Little League baseball. What subtely happens is the kid becomes a “doing” and learns to forsake simply “being”. It can become grotesque like an emphasis on year around sports just to keep up with whoever is getting better. Kids learn that they can never do or be enough. Naturally, most kids burn out which means they can’t get enough from outside accomplishment to fill up the inside hole. In the long run it’s a setup for addiction and a sad saga that uproots the beauty of each child’s destiny. It’s a setup for dysfunctional behavior and many times contributes to addiction. From this dynamic people get locked into a conundrum of never getting enough of what they really don’t want. They become like a little kid who cannot get enough sugar. Usually, a person will develop a cocktail of experience which often include addictive behavior in an attempt to fill the hole.
This never ending thirst for more gives birth to grandiosity and sets the foundation for rule breaking which is an ultimate downfall to those who suffer from addiction. There is a story told about this subtle snag of grandiosity in the book The Spirituality of Imperfection written by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketchum. The story goes that a past president of Hazelden Foundation, a leading treatment resource for alcohol and drug addiction, was approached by a young researcher asking “Why is it that even intelligent alcoholics can get so trapped in denial of their alcoholism? Is it because of grandiosity—they think that they can do anything to their bodies and survive, they think that they are ‘too smart’ to be alcoholic? Or is it because of self-loathing—they despise themselves and feel they deserve to die, if they are alcoholics? The past president sighed and replied- “The alcoholic’s problem is not that he thinks he is very special. Nor is the alcoholic’s problem that he thinks he is a worm. The alcoholic’s problem is that he is convinced “I am a very special worm!”
Parents can fuel this mentality through Little League sports. Unfulfilled dreams can become grandiose expectations for children, particularly when the child demonstrates special talent to throw or hit a baseball or whatever. Parents conclude that their child deserves special consideration in family or at school because of their talent. When the parent concludes that their child is being treated unfair by not getting to play enough or not allowed to play a certain position, then mom or dad raises hell with the coach. A threat is made. “Either my son will play a certain amount or a certain position or we will pull him off the team and go play elsewhere” is a common retaliation. All too often if the child is good enough, then concessions are made. Suddenly the child is awakened to the experience of special privilege. He notices that I can demand what I want and get it because I have special talent and am an exception to the rules. Sports is not the only contributing factor to this grandiose attitude but it can provides common fuel to this “special worm” mentality.
Usher in the days of college and the world of sports. The university will often bend the rules and make exceptions just to get a prized athlete to play at their school. I say play at their school versus attend the university for education because the truth of the matter is many universities don’t care except for the image of looking like they do. The bottom line is profit and polishing the image so that nothing tarnishes the profit making machine of college sports.
The mentality of rule breaking gets reinforced when the university creates special favors for the athlete, counting on the athlete’s performance to generate money for the university or help the school to present a certain national image. Athletic programs want to tout graduation rates but little is considered regarding the program’s contribution to a rule breaker’s mentality.
The Dalai Lama’s mantra of “Learn and obey the rules very well, so you will know how to break them properly” is commonly distorted by athletic departments by embracing “learn the rules very well. so you will know how avoid getting caught when you break them”.
Professional organizations escalate the rule breaker’s mentality. They fuel the challenge by giving the athlete anything they want, as long as the athlete performed to a certain level of excellence. Usually this meant building a championship team. Historically, it meant doing whatever it takes including breaking the rules. So you have the Vodafone McClaren Mercedes racing team fined a record $100 million for cheating. You have Lance Armstrong and other world class bicyclists being stripped of their accomplishments because of their use of performance enhancing drugs. There is the New England Patriots fined thousands of dollars for spying on opponents practice sessions. And of course, there is the steroid scandal in baseball where many great players who have now retired are deprived from Hall of Fame status because they were found guilty or highly suspicioned to have used performance enhancing drugs (P.E.D’S)
Back in the day, everybody knew that PED’S were being used even when major league officials cried innocent. The owners loved that those suspicioned were hitting home runs at a record pace and that a rare home run race between Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa took the nation by storm. The stadiums were being filled and the owners absolutely loved the revenue the drug users were providing. League officials reveled in the firestorm of excitement and enthusiasm. Everybody on the professional side absolutely lost themselves in greed and gluttony of increased revenue.
The fans were not innocent either. As long as home runs were hit, records were being broken and their home team was in the thick of a pennant race, no one cared to think about how big the players were becoming or the way in which these amazing statistics were being compiled.
More was just better! Until, Jose Canseco wrote his bombshell book, Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big in February 2006. In this book he told on himself and a ton of others who broke the rules with steroid use. At first, most people wrote off his statements and accused Canseco of acting out sour grapes about baseball. But, today the detractors are silent and the offending players have become the scapegoat for the league and our society.
The prima donna mentality shows up when treating addiction frequently. Deprivation spawns entitlement. Addicts can be deprived of financial power, emotional fulfillment, or relational validation which will fuel addictive entitlement. The combination makes it justifiable in an addict’s brain to binge one more time and then again and again. The arrogance that has been so characteristic in the cheating scandals of major professional sports is distinctive to the classic attitude presentation in an addict’s life.
I remember one time when a very prominent and renowned politician scheduled a session to see me. He had a long history of alcohol abuse and had been acting out sexually. His family was destroyed by his behavior and his marriage was in disarray. Because of his notoriety, we decided to allow him to enter the back door and walk directly to my office without me being there to avoid recognition. So Mr. Celebrity Politician walked into my office and chose to sit in the chair that I usually sit. He later told me that he surmised that this particular chair was the “power position” in the room and he was determined to have the power. When I walked in I quickly noted that he was in my chair so I sat on the floor. We had not met and Mr. Celebrity bellowed “Well, Well, Well, Ken Wells -who in the hell is Ken Wells?”—glaring down at me over his reading glasses. So I responded by calling him by name “Mr. Celebrity who in the hell do you want me to be? We can play this game of intimidation whereby we waste our time. But, you are the one who came to treat addiction to alcohol and sex. You decide what you want to happen—“ From that moment on, he got up out of the chair and sat in one that represented him giving up his power (in his mind) and I remained on the floor. He had to shift from his arrogant attitude of entitlement to one that demonstrated openness to being coachable. This celebrity politician did some valuable therapy throughout the week as a result.
Coaches can also add to the mix with regard to the development of rule breakers. I remember my son playing for a coach in college where the rules were that athletes could not chew tobacco on the campus and particularly during their sporting venue. The coach made the announcement only pausing to spit from the chew that was in his mouth. It was an obvious mixed message.
Two other memories from my kid’s baseball days come to mind. One memory is when my oldest son Jimmy played for this one team during the off season. During this particular game, his team fell behind 10- 0 after the first 3 innings. Jimmy’s team was hand picked by his coach and suppose to be really good. The coach was embarrassed that his team was getting shellacked. As a parent I stood behind the screen down the first base line as the head coach and the pitching coach had this intense discussion going on. Head coach said, “that’s it, I’m pulling the kids off the field and forfeiting the rest of the game”. Pitching coach said, “No you are not going to do that! I won’t let you embarrass those kids like that! Head Coach, “ But, it’s over, we can’t come back and we can never catch up!” It went back and forth like this for several minutes while the game went on. Finally, the head coach gave in and conceded to the pitching coach. So what happened is that my son hit his first home run of the season making it 10-1 after 4 innings. The team came to life and scored 8 more unanswered runs, finally losing the game 10- 9. Had it not been for a spectacular defensive play in the field, Jim’s team actually would have won the game. So after the game I’m thinking “Now this is going to be fun to see what the coach has to say to the kids”. So he gathers the kids around for a closing after game chat. I’m thinking “this is an opportunity for the coach to tell on himself, make a profound leadership statement- like, “you guys have taught me a lesson to never give up or something like that”. Of course, the kids never knew about the argument between the head coach and the pitching coach. So the coach clears his throat and says, “let this be a lesson to you, you gave up in the first 3 innings but you showed yourself that it is always a mistake to give up—You almost came back to win the game. I knew you could do it. You just have to believe in yourself.” He missed a valued opportunity to be vulnerable and empower the kids by telling on himself about being a rule breaker regarding belief in his own team. His shortsightedness short circuited inspiration.
At another time, my youngest son Sam was playing on a summer league baseball team. During the course of the game his coach became annoyed about the umpire’s calls of balls and strikes. The tipping point came when the umpire made a controversial call that Sam’s coach disagreed. He ran out to the umpires to protest. As arguments go, the coach ramped up and things got pretty heated. The coach just wouldn’t back off after the umpire gave him plenty of opportunity. So the umpire threw the coach out of the game. Here’s where things went awry. The coach stepped back, folded his arms across his chest and announced, “No, I’m not leaving—you guys are leaving because I am firing you both!” With that said the umpires gathered their equipment and left. The coach appointed his assistant coaches to finish the game as umpires. He made a complete ass of himself in front of the kids and parents. After the game he gathered the kids in the outfield to go over the usual debriefing. I thought to myself that this will be interesting to see how the coach handles making an ass of himself. During the short talk the coach made a few statements about players who played well and mistakes that were made but not a single word about the umpires. As we walked away it was clear that the coach missed a golden opportunity toward leadership. It would have been a teachable moment had he apologized to the kids and parents for his behavior toward the umpires. He could have demonstrated that even if you are the coach it’s not ok to act like an idiot but when you do, the sensible thing to do is to apologize. He could have shared that he would make sure amends were made to the umpires and pay them double for their embarrassment. Instead, the kids walked away with the lesson that it is ok to break the rules if you’re the one in charge.
Mixed messages are common components for those who grow up in families with dysfunction fraught with addiction. Rigid rules are codified, making it impossible for new information to be received and processed. “Don’t talk”, “my way or the highway”, “children are to be seen and not heard” and a host of other catchword rules dominate and oppress family members and contribute to a foundation which ultimately fuel a rule breaking mentality. These rigid rules fuel a shame bound system which ultimately thwarts and destroys a child’s destiny. It creates a distorted worldview that those who have the power are ones who get to break the rules. Kids learn to be rigid and resistant to change. They learn to hide their mistakes in fear of being ridiculed if they them. Healthy systems in family and community promote resilience toward interpreting life experience. It promotes ongoing dialogue around differences and long term commitment to resolve conflict. Healthy families and communities encourage individuals to claim their place and space in relationship to others. They promote accountability without attacking personal worth. These communities become like tough, flexible leather with a greater capacity to absorb stress from change. They are communities that teach the rules clearly so with a sense of responsibility members of the community system will responsibly understand the flexibility of community guidelines and as the Dalai Lama suggests “so that you will know how to break them properly”.
When an athlete fully blooms into a rule breaker, parents often wonder what went wrong. When it comes to baseball and steroids or other broken rules, society laments that baseball has lost its values. Everyone passes the buck as if it were a hot potato. The truth lies in that we are all complicit in creating the mentality of rule breaking. It comes from an attitude of entitlement. Owners pout and threaten to move their franchises if the community doesn’t build a new stadium for costs upward toward a billion dollars. Ball players contend that if it takes cheating with performance enhancement drugs to get an edge then that is what they are mandated to do. Fans feel victimized but enjoy the success of those who cheat until they get caught. Fans have never asserted themselves in opposition to cheating by boycotting the game. No one wants to take ownership for the creation of the rule breaker. Yet, the rule breaker is a product of society’s system and we are all a part of the system.
Rule breakers are groomed at every level in our communities. I have learned by working with families that when a principle of responsibility is confronted with a young person, any time I pushed against the parents, if they remained solid and constant with me as I worked with their son or daughter, the results were always positive and transformative for the child. However, if the parent was protective and defensive in behalf of the child and let the child off the hook from consequences for their behavior, we always lost our impact and influence with the child. They learned that they could get by breaking the rules.
Culture and community have glaring examples of rule breakers that contribute to the rule breaking mentality which fuels addictive living. Role modeling rule breaking occurs at every level of society. Politicians break the rules. Ministers, coaches, teachers, policemen, doctors and lawyers have all been guilty of feeling entitled to break the rules. The impact on the worldwide community is astounding.
There is a distinct correlation between the prevalent attitude of breaking the rules in our society and the presence of breaking the rules in an addict’s life. Breaking the power of addiction and entitled living will require that community and addict alike recognize limitations and surrender to living within the common rules of community. Only then will the Dalai Lama’s statement be lived out — “Learn and obey the rules very well, so you will know how to break them properly—”
Article by Ken Wells