Sunday, October 25, 2015

What if we don't all need to be elite?

I'm entering the frustrating and exhilarating world of youth sports rather reluctantly and a bit late in the game it seems.  I've got two boys; middle school and early high school aged.  We live in a small town where sports are big.  Kids start playing tackle football in their early elementary years and are doing all the other sports from kindergarten on.  If sports is not what you do from the cradle, it seems, whenever you decide to jump in, you already feel behind, especially if your parents are like me.  My entire experience in the athletics world consists of 2 seasons of middle school volleyball on the C team and being mildly obsessed with running 6 years ago.

My boys are hard wired for athletics.  Their grandpa and dad and cousins were all avid athletes in school, and it turns out that when they hit their middle school years, sports became all they could talk about too.   No longer could I play the "I don't want to be cold" mama card.  I had to let them play some sports: yes, even if they were out of doors and I had to plan appropriate clothing,  I had to dive in right alongside them and learn what a girdle was, and whether a jock strap was actually necessary.

Thankfully, a dear friend of mine has some kids who are equally sport obsessed, and she has been my sports doula of sorts.  A doula is a person who helps a woman in childbirth.  It's a bit like that entering the sports and teen parenting world, and she and a few other core moms in my life have helped me to retain my sanity while allowing me to grill them on what's normal and what's expected.  I even have texted directly with her son, a senior in high school, and then bragged to some acquaintances that I was "texting all the senior athletes" for advice.  I neglected to say that I was actually texting all the senior athletes I actually knew, which was one, and my daughter, who's a junior, called my bluff on that one.

I remember my eldest boy decided to play basketball for a boys and girls club team back in 4th or 5th grade,  and I thought that was pretty awesome, having come from a Hoosier family and all, and him being tall, that it would be a fun and exciting experience all around.  I was in for a shock: somehow all the children were supposed to be NBA level, and if they were not, well, they just wouldn't ever get the ball.  It was an odd experience, especially since only a small minority of the children had even hit puberty, and last I remembered, you needed to be an adult to be a professional basketball player.  There were parents filming and yelling at kids and the meanest kid on the team was the star player and therefore was the one who carried the ball.  We didn't do basketball again for a while.

We had a brief stint with baseball, but found the games too boring and cold (well, I did), and then we left the sports scene all together and did some Taekwondo.  Positive attitude, respect for self and others, hard work and athleticism were core to it, and though the kids didn't ever go knock down some bad guys attacking them in the alley, I did see their stature rise a bit.  They looked people in the eye and made new friends, listened with respect to their instructor and had fun. So what was the difference?

As I emerge from my first season of tackle football for my boys, I am beginning to understand.  If instead of worrying about being the best, we notice what we have learned, how much we have improved, and how much fun we had, we will find so much more joy in athletics, and really any other aspect of life.

Being highly skilled in athletics, academics, music, or any other vocation is worthy of high esteem.  When I mastered the manual settings on my camera, I was proud, and it took hard work to get there.  Likewise, if my boy makes a good tackle after practicing hard for hours on end, he should be well satisfied in his good work.

There's a word for the select sports teams called "elite" and it's not my favorite, because it tacitly implies that there is another class to the sports world, and that you may never be able to break through that glass ceiling.  Kids start to believe that somehow it is an embarrassment to play sports if you do not play on an elite team or a high school JV or Varsity team, or if you have not played a sport your entire life.  Thankfully, my kids have debunked this myth and have experienced some of the same joys in conventional sports (especially this football season) that they enjoyed in their Taekwondo class, but they have not done it without some reservations.

This is where we need to encourage change in the culture of childhood:  instead of pushing our children to be elite, let us encourage them to enjoy what they do, to work hard at it, and to take great satisfaction in that work.  I think we'll have fewer sports "dropouts," higher caliber sports teams, and much happier kids.

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