My kids have played sports all their lives. They started as toddlers and still play in college. For many years I saw this as a physically healthy pastime that would teach them something about being a part of a group larger than themselves. I thought teammates would teach them teamwork. I thought that from good coaching they would learn to be coachable.
And, oh the memories…from personal bests on cross-country trails to hitting the game winning run in little league, to agonizing last second defeats in championship soccer games. Sports is life at full intensity and the memories are thus indelible.
On every level I underestimated what my sons would gain and the depth and importance of these lessons to their lives.
1. The best teammates were not the best athletes, but the best people.
2. Being a good team captain is 20% knowledge of the sport and 80% understanding of people.
3. Parents can be short-sighted and, honestly, nasty, focused entirely on the outcome of a meaningless children’s game. They can get so caught up in an event that will not impact one person’s life that they audibly disrespect other children, authorities (refs) and the good men and women who devote their time to coaching and teaching kids.
4. Parents can be so wonderful and generous that when you are one of their kid’s teammates they almost treat you as one of their own. They saw parents who would drive other people’s kids anywhere and who offered drinks, meals, encouragement and consolation. As they grew older they saw parents who quietly paid the fees for a teammate whose family could not afford the cost or helped a teammate with college applications and FAFSA forms when their own parents were unable. They met parents who taught them that team is family.
5. They came to understand that luck, good and bad, is a powerful force in everything we do and is largely beyond our control.
6. They learned, over time, to own up to what they had done right and wrong, their own personal successes and failures, and to take responsibility.
7. They learned that every father who ever played a college sport will at some point bring that fact up in conversation.
8. They saw that a pickup game or intramural activity could be every bit as much fun as a competitive varsity team.
9. They came to understand that when a team, or athlete or anyone focuses on “winning” rather than learning the building blocks of any sport, skill or job, victory is constructed on a hollow platform. My kids saw how a single precocious athlete could win a game for his team when the kids were still young. But unless the rest of the team learned the skills and strategy of the sport, this was a short-term fix, not a long-term strategy.
10. They learned to ignore the misguided exhortations of parents, including their own, shrieking from the sidelines.
11. I could never have guessed how they would come to love the camaraderie of their teams. Sports at every level brought them friends from every background and nationality, with wide-ranging views and life experiences. In the middle and high school years, teams transcended friend groups and cliques, counteracting some of the social challenges of those years. They learned that common ground and a shared interest is a more powerful force that superficial differences.
12. They now understand time spent in any intense shared experience with others creates crystal clear and cherished memories that are forever preserved like a fossils in amber.
13. They came to understand that winning is certainly more fun than losing, but that it has absolutely no impact on how much they enjoyed or learned from any given sport, team or coach.
14. They learned that YouTube videos can teach technique but that only wonderful coaches can model sportsmanship, create a true sense of team or convey the love of a sport that becomes infectious.
15. They learned that becoming a good athlete is not how you played in one game or one season, but how you played over years. Failure is just a way station. And, like becoming good at anything, it is about days and weeks and then many years of progressing then regressing and then, with effort, moving forward again.