As a former rough water lifeguard and eager health enthusiast, I completely support physical exercise being part of growing a whole child.  However, I struggle with the emphasis on sports in today’s youth culture.  Every kid walks away from their chosen sport someday…….then what?  Many coaches and parents fail to identify the lifetime value of sports because they falsely assume they are training the next state champs.  

They fail to see each child beyond the day when the sports equipment goes in the donation box or the closet.  Is organized sports just something you do in your school years?  Or can it be more?  While sometimes the game ends up going through college years, for most team sports end at college begins.  This is the intersection I found myself in just the other day.

Recently, I watched my daughter play her last soccer game of her high school years.  Her soccer days on a team are likely over.  My mind was flooded with memories from young years.  Thoughts of coaches from her elementary years who cheered her on and offered warm, approving hugs even when they saw her away from the field flooded my memories.  The early elementary years when she was keen on the goal and prompt at making one goal after another.  The numerous times she guarded the goal from the opponent’s ball as the goalie.  I remember her anticipation to see the color of her new uniform for the season.

My husband played sports extensively throughout his growing up years.  He even played on an over 30 baseball team for several years.  Even after two ACL knee surgeries he still plays a mean game of basketball with our boys.  In his years as a parent, my children have benefitted from his coaching.  He has coached boy’s and girl’s basketball and boy’s baseball teams.  In these years I have watched him coach with the same character that he played the game.  While he is just a competitive as the next person, his goal is to win and lose with the right attitude.  This blog reflects his ideas as a competitor and coach as well as my ideas as a mom and former water enthusiast.  

While sports is about fun and exercise, it’s benefit can be greater.  More importantly, I think that playing recreational sports offers a platform to talk about how to respond to winning or losing.  In life we spend more time losing than winning, so it seems like it would be prudent to practice losing with grace.  Trying again and again when we fail is what continues to grow us in academics, relationships and sports.  A "right" response proves even more challenging when it seems that a call was wrong, or when a player was intentionally injured.  

Learning to win is equally important as we must think about how our opponent feels when losing.  It’s about giving the credit to the proper place.  When winning does my girl look around to those who were part of the process?  Is she thankful for her parents who drove her to practices and games?  Who financed the activity?  How about the coaches who volunteer their time for the team?  What is her response?  Gratitude or pride?  The outcome of a game is an opportunity for a substantial life lesson whether it is a win or loss.

This last soccer game was a playoff game.  She has been privileged to be here before.  The win has been ours in past years, but not this time.  We lost in the last minute as one of our best players missed the goal in an elimination to break the tied score. Wow!! Disappointment is high. The team played hard until the end.  Everyone thought back to their own favorite "What if...?".  In the end of it all what is often remembered is not what happens, but how we react.  Her team shook hands with the winners.  She spoke compliments to several players on the opposing team who had kicked a goal during the game or assisted others to score.  What I noticed that even though she was disappointed with the outcome, she responded with gracious sportsmanship! I could not have been prouder.

All this remembering prompted some troubling questions.  How have we talked through the game in these years?  What have the coaches said to my girl?  How has being a player, a competitor and a person been altered by these years on the soccer field?  Is it about the win? Do we just rush past a loss looking ahead toward the next game hoping for a win?  Or do we talk it through?  How do we process a perceived wrong call?  Do we support the authority of the referees and the coaches?  

My other children play sports too.  One played two seasons and only won three games.  Do you quit?  The truth is that one of my sons is currently on a losing team and at least two players have quit.  Can they be expected to quit in life when things are not going their way?  Will sticking it out make them a better man?  If you know you are up against giants because your team is young, inexperienced, under-financed... what do you do?  How do you teach your child to respond?  What if your team has numerous injuries and a physically inferior team?  Can we be a light when the experience ahead already feels discouraging?  Those of us who are adults know that this sports experience certainly can mirror life experiences.  Why not teach the comeback they might use later when it is life and not a game?

Being part of a team is itself valuable.  While it may look like just a game to some, sports actually offers the opportunity to learn many valuable lessons. Self-control, hard work ethic, determination, and a never-give-up attitude amount to some keen training for the game of life.

Sports can teach...

  • A solid work ethic
  • Determination
  • Belief in what others can do
  • Trust your teammates
  • Play as a team
  • Don’t play solo
  • Being an encouragement
  • A standard of excellence
  • Losing gracefully
  • Picking up others when they fall
  • Go to your limit and beyond
  • To lose with dignity
  • To share
  • To respect the coach and referees
  • To accept unfair calls

Self-control begins when it is time to dress for practice.  This may happen in the heat of the summer or in the winter.  Practice is just hard work.  Those with foresight recognize it as necessary for victory and growth. Consistent practice brings intentional skill development to the players.

Next, a hard work ethic demands preparation for excellence.  Hard work is vital to achieving goals. Several areas must be sharp in order to maintain work ethic: Integrity, responsibility, quality, discipline and togetherness. Stress integrity.  Others must be able to rely on honesty if trust is to be secured.  High standards establish character.

The next step in working hard involves identifying and embracing responsibilities. For some, this comes easily. Without a goal of the end, one cannot recognize what is required.  Pinpointing what is asked by the coach and working toward that goal required that my daughter put her best effort toward completing the goals her coaches established for me. This experience helped her assume her responsibilities as a team player.

Another step in having a strong work ethic would be in producing quality.  This is simply doing your best.  Sometimes your best might result in a play or assist a teammate in scoring. Sometimes your best fails, but you can be proud that you put out your optimum effort.

After self-control and hard work ethic, next comes DETERMINATION. Determination implies resoluteness.  Willpower, purpose, single-mindedness, intentionality and character all come to mind when contemplating determination.  Sometimes a goal is established, but the player has no idea how to reach it. Has this ever happened to you? Applying determination and searching for instruction is a must.  Perhaps this means talking to the coach for his advice since he has likely faced this same hurdle. Another idea involves searching for instructional videos on-line.  This often is just what I need.  In addition to these thoughts, an older player who demonstrates mastery might be willing to share instruction with me.  Being teachable is a must. 

A NEVER-GIVE-UP attitude represents the fifth character quality.  Keys to triumph involve not quitting, not comparing, and working toward determined goals.  Recently, our family has been listening to the famous, well known, neuro-surgeon, Ben Carson.  In Ben Carson’s The Big Picture one of his quotes states,  “People who fail in life are people who find lots of excuses. It's never too late for a person to recognize that they have potential in themselves.”

So in the twenty plus years of being a parent with kids playing sports, I have identified what I love about youth sports and what generates caution.  Below are some of my concerns which we have experienced first hand:

Youth sports are not a benefit when...

  • They fuel mean spirited behavior.  
  • Sports dominate the family schedule 
  • Families don't eat dinner together because of the sports schedule.
  • Coaches yell and shame players
  • Coaches do not respect the kids
  • Coaches are not role models
  • Steroids or other drugs are used
  • Participation promotes eating disorders either in gaining or losing weight
  • Tempers are rampant with adults and players
  • Sports consume more time than academics
  • Fans and players become abusive
  • Players are encouraged to injure opponents
  • Parents who take the sport more seriously than their children

In conclusion, this blog is really more about character learned from playing any sport than the physical game.  Sadly, this was my daughter's last soccer game.  We lost.  But did we?  I think she is a winner because of the character gained.  Self-control, hard work ethic, determination, stamina and a never-give-up attitude last long after the “game” is over. 

So when the lights go out, when the cheering stops, when its time to “leave it on the field”.... what do we have as a take away?

 

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