Life Lessons from Youth Sports
Yesterday, I spent 10 hours at our son’s basketball tournament. Yes. TEN.
I am exhausted.
As a mother of a player, and observer of the game, you may wonder where my exhaustion comes from. This mushy-brained, stare-at-the-wall state has nothing to do with the amount of time we were there, or the fact that I struggle to sit still for any period of time. My exhaustion is purely emotional.
However, my heart is full.
I am probably one of those moms that other people have written articles about. The overly invested fan, that sometimes needs a volume reminder from her husband. I do not, however, care if we win or lose. I am equally invested if we are tied, up 20, or losing without hope of a comeback. I cheer for every child and have to hold back the tears when someone that does not always shine, has a shining moment. I love the idea that anything is possible for any child during those minutes on the court. And I’m vocal about it.
My passion and intensity come from watching a game I love, that is so much more than meets the eye. I think being involved in youth sports is incredibly impactful for kids- and parents. And after reflecting on the day, these are the lessons we will hold dear:
The first game we watched, our son was simply a spectator. He was there, per his coach’s request, to watch his some of his classmates play. I truly believe this set the tone for the two team’s interactions for the day. While so many times we emphasize competition with boys in sports, and in life, their coach started the day with the idea that supporting other teams/male peers, in their success, or opportunities for growth, is important.
I love this.
As parents, we want our child to learn that it’s not always about what we do as an individual, but how we support those around us. We are so lucky to have coaches that model the same philosophy.
Lesson one, and we haven’t even started playing. Thanks, Coaches.
As we watched games throughout the day, there were many injuries. It’s bound to happen when you have a gym full of boys trying to grow into their bodies. Thankfully, we didn’t see any injuries that were serious- and most of them were healed between games with a hug, an ice pack and some concession snacks.
The will of the human spirit to persevere, even when it’s hard, is remarkable. These little men did it all day long. They picked their bodies and hearts, off the floor, and tried, again.
If we are honest, most of the injuries came when there was the potential for a loss, or during a big momentum shift. Because everything hurts more intensely when we are afraid. The lesson in this, however, is that dispute their fear, and pain, the got up and tried, again.
I don’t think we give kids in these situations enough credit. They win, lose, fumble and grow in front of an audience. Most adults aren’t brave enough to even try something new when no one is looking. Maybe we need to take notes about courage, tenacity and humility from our kids. At the very least, we need to make sure we recognize where we see these traits and how incredibly inspiring they are.
Lesson two: Be courageous enough to try, and try again.
Being a referee in any sporting arena is tough. It is not a job I would ever attempt. It often comes with criticism and scrutiny. To add to the pressure, I would imagine that it’s a challenge to decide when to blow the whistle and when to let something go, when errors are so abundant.
We had some great refs, yesterday. They were calm, knowledgeable, and helped the young athletes understand some nuances of the game of basketball that they have yet to master. I am incredibly appreciative of this effort.
We also had some referees that seemed less than thrilled to be present for a fourth grade boys game. Or present, at all.
Two referees had an opportunity to take a very skilled player on an opposing team, who was being intentionally hurtful to a player on our team, and help him. The kid’s ability to advance the ball the way he wanted to, and score, was essentially shut down by our player’s defensive play. The kid was visibly frustrated. He was “trash-talking” our player and elbowing him in the face and throat and trying to knock him over. That is not basketball. It has no place on the court. The refs let it play out to the point that it was dangerous. It happened over and over for several minutes and multiple trips down the court.
As a referee of youth sports, you have an opportunity to coach, shape, and meaningfully impact the way these young players play the game. Allowing conduct that is intentionally harmful is unacceptable. The fact that there was no whistle, no foul, no instruction and no accountability, told that player, and all the rest of the athletes, that this conduct is okay.
Boys in stripes, this is not, in fact, okay.
Youth sports participation should promote actions that show integrity, and elevate the player’s understanding that giftedness in a particular sport is not the only thing that is important.
Lesson three: Playing any game in a way that shows you respect yourself, your team and your opponent is a game worth playing. This is also a lesson to carry for life.
So, as the situation that I previously described played out, our coach advocated for our player, in a way I felt proud of. He did everything he could, short of running on the court, to draw attention to the increasingly intense situation. The crowd in the packed gym was erupting with pleas for a whistle, or the other coach to do something with his player. I am proud that while begging for the madness to end, our coach ALSO encouraged the player that was taking the beating to stay tough and continue to play the game in a way in a way he could be proud of.
In that moment, our coach taught the entire team this lesson four:
When things get tough, or seem unfair, do the right thing, anyway.
AMEN. Do the RIGHT thing, anyway.
As for the other player, the one acting in a way that lacked integrity- I actually felt sorry for him. There was an adult on the bench that had an opportunity to help him, and chose not to. That young man deserved to be held to a higher standard.
Instead of having an opportunity to learn emotional restraint, and discipline, he was told that the best he could do was to physically hurt someone when he didn’t get his way. He was taught that it doesn’t matter how you play the game as long as you get the win. He was taught that playing for yourself is better than playing as a team. Heartbreaking. I liked our coaches lesson, better.
As a parent, watching your child play youth sports, is sometimes like watching him take a life-skills test in public. You get to witness reactions to pressure, adversity, success, not being included, or taking direction from another adult. It’s also a lesson for parents, as to how you will handle watching your child live through each of these situations, and how you can help them be more successful in the future.
During some of these tests, our child has far surpassed any expectation we may have had and times he has fallen short. I can say that every single pride-filled moment, has had nothing to do with the score or even the game. Our pride has come from watching him be brave enough to try a new skill, support his teammates, be a player that takes direction from his coach, and the drive to never, ever quit. All of these skills are bigger than the game of basketball and reasons why we passionately support his activities.
As for the games where we wished things had gone differently, these have probably been the most memorable, and have led to conversations about what it looks like to take accountability for what we aren’t proud of, and create a plan to do it differently next time. I even use myself as an example, and have asked him to give me feedback on my cheering, and how it makes him feel. I have not always loved the feedback, but I will continue to work on myself, as regardless of my intent, delivery is everything, and I don’t want him to tune me out. I also need to remember that regardless of how loud I cheer my support, sometimes I have to allow others to mentor him and help him grow. That’s an important lesson for mom… one I’m learning to accept.
These moments are also times when I pray that we are developing a pattern- the sharing of success and failure and opportunities for growth- and when he becomes a bigger person, with bigger problems, he will remember that it is safe, and helpful to talk to his parents about it.
Lesson Five: Take the opportunity to use the game as a metaphor for life, and develop the whole athlete.
I am aware that this is a lot of deep thought when we are talking about little boys playing a game. But I will not apologize for thinking so intently about it, as I clearly believe that, like most things in life, we will get out of this experience, what we put into it. I am fully committed to the job of doing everything I can to support our boys in becoming men they will be proud of. These experiences will undoubtedly be part of that. And I want to make sure we take every opportunity to celebrate, grow and learn everything we can from it. Because I love them that freaking much.
Thank you to the coaches, parents, refs and families that contribute so greatly to our son’s youth sports experiences. It clearly means a lot to us. You are teaching them much more than just rules or skills of a game. You are helping all of us learn about life, and we are incredibly grateful.
And thanks for being patient with the intense mom in the crowd. She will continue to support you, and to work on her volume control.
Erin Flood View All →
Mother, Wife, Teacher and Believer.
Awesome stuff Erin. The lessons you listed seemed right on (even though I was not there). You are a great writer. Kids/youth/high school get so much out of athletics and it’s more about life skills. They may not think of it now when a coach talks to his/her team but, a few years later they may remember what the coach said or their message, when something in your life triggers back to that day when the coached talked to them (one of the hundred or so times). Love the articles you write.
Thanks, Kurt Krueget