This story starts with a six year old boy who was predictably driving his mom crazy. With two younger sisters that required attention, the boy’s hyperactivity was difficult to manage. Soon he found himself shipped off two nights a week as the only kindergartner running around a Boys and Girls Club gym with a bunch of 1st grade boys. The only real difference was that the 1st graders understood the rules and knew what they were supposed to do. Watching him run the wrong way with the ball on a mini-gym basketball court was certainly quite funny, especially since he wasn’t dribbling, but it also involved a certain amount of angst for his hyper-competitive, athletic father. So began my sojourn into the world of youth sports.
Of course, since I grew up in a sporting family and played competitive tennis from the age of six, this wasn’t really the beginning of my athletic experience, but rather a new phase with new roles and new responsibilities. Instead of practicing and playing myself, my job was to praise, support, teach, encourage, push (but only so much), and counsel my three children through their youth sports experiences. Now some 20 years later, with one son still playing professional basketball in Europe and two daughters having played thousands of hours of competitive soccer, I pause to take stock and understand what it was all about and why it was so important.
When I cut through all of the clutter, it is clear to me that it is not about the “sporting”…it is actually about the “life”. In my 25 years of professional endeavors, the lessons I apply the most often…the tools I use to achieve success…the skills I call on every single day…all of these things I experienced and developed through sports. Leadership, commitment, teamwork, self-reliance, focus, perseverance, humility, graciousness, faith – were all honed to one degree or another through sports. Certainly my academic, work, and social experiences provided equally important ingredients in my growth, but athletic competition played a unique role in my personal development.
My involvement in youth sports with my three children has only reinforced this belief. I’ve watched them learn from amazing coaches and mentors, as well as experience poor coaches who were bad role models. As I’ve said to them many times, “Guess what, you are going to have some good bosses and some bad ones along the way.” I’ve seen them dedicate themselves to a goal and achieve success as well as get complacent and miss out on some incredible opportunities as a result. What better way for a child to learn about the values of hard work and discipline. Naturally, I’ve shared the disappointment and empty feeling of defeat as well as that much discussed “thrill of victory”, both of which will be constant companions for my children as they go through life. They have had to learn how to “play well with others” and have built incredible, life-lasting friendships with teammates and opponents alike. They’ve also experienced the tragedy of a teammate and friend dying…a lesson learned much too early and with great soul searching. #10 will always be special…
Any committed athlete who tells you that sports isn’t about winning is either lying to themselves or lying to everyone else – or perhaps both. Of course it is about winning, because winning is a part of life. Without goals, how do we measure ourselves and strive to become better? Still, there are those who say that in America we’ve allowed sports (and the winning that goes with it) to become too important – that it dominates our culture and education system in a way that is unhealthy. And certainly there are parents who helicopter and snowplow their kids through sports in a way that loses sight of the essential value and essence of competition, sportsmanship, and life lessons. There are also coaches, trainers, agents, and players (sadly highlighted recently in the NFL) who have their own best interests in mind and take advantage of sports in ways that are detrimental to others. But even here, I would argue, we find a life lesson – there are no Gardens of Eden – and each of us is responsible for maintaining the essential goodness that sport brings to our lives.
With my own sporting activity quickly shifting to things that don’t require vertical leaps or fast reflexes (see golf and gym workouts) and my children moving out on their own, I want to take a moment to thank all of those who helped me understand the value of sports along the way. Some are closer to home like my siblings and my parents, especially my mom. But others are names you won’t know like Valerie Scott, Bruce Cohen, Louise Allen, Marvin Rauchbach, and many others who provided me with the foundation I needed for life through their commitment to sport. Each of my children has an equally long list of coaches who dedicated their time and energy, generally for very little tangible reward, to help them grow through the love of sports. To them I tip my cap and remember the special moments they enabled.
That little six year old boy is still playing basketball proudly wearing #10, and still trying to master the elements of talent, perseverance, teamwork, coaching, and competition that have shaped and molded him for almost 20 years. The difference is he’s now a man who has learned how the game is supposed to be played. And that is as it should be…that is the Sporting…Life.