This week my son is finalizing his college football commitment and it got me to thinking about the impact that sports has on our lives. More specifically, the contribution that sports has in shaping our individual character and the lessons that we learn about ourselves by participating in athletic competition.
Personally, sports have always been a part of my life, and has helped shape who I am. My father gave me many life lessons through sports, as have countless coaches and teammates. I see the reflection of these lessons in actions I take every day….how to deal with failure…the benefits of hard work….working in a team environment…learning to make sacrifices for the greater good…and becoming intimately familiar with the requirement of personal discipline to achieve a goal.
I was speaking to a friend who is older than me about this. In the past, at least for men, the military draft was often the single cultural experience that threw males together from every conceivable background. You could be an African American from New York, a Texas ranch hand, a farmer from southern Alabama or a long-haired California surfer. It was, in so many ways, the great equalizer. That has ended, and sports remains as the great equalizer for bringing people together.
That’s because sports has also always been a way for people from different backgrounds, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, geographic location or racial group to come together and speak a universal language. When channeled correctly, sports can also provide a guiding path that can mold or on occasion SAVE a young person’s life. I have met and read about so many men and women who utilized sports to escape what challenges layed before them. Many of these folks, we will never see on a TV commercial or in a magazine, but sports has given them purpose and traits that have allowed them to be productive members of our society.
But, I believe it also teaches something special. It builds character, a lesson that can remain with you forever. I recall being on the court when I was thirteen years old playing in a Christian Youth Organization basketball tournament. My team was winning the game and towards the end I started to taunt the opposition. I was immediately yanked out of the game and made to sit the final few minutes of a close contest.
My team ended up losing the game and, our ability to advance in the tournament. My coach said to me that winning humbly or losing with dignity shows more about who you are as a person than anything I will ever do on the basketball court. He said that he would rather me lose a game than have my character be lost forever. While I was despondent at losing the game, the words that coach said to me that day remain etched in my memory bank. Too often we get wrapped up in the moment without allowing ourselves to step back and focus on what is important. My coach, and later my father, ensured that this was not lost on me that day. Albeit, my father's version of teaching me that lesson was appreciably louder and a lot more direct in the car ride home.
While I am on this topic of life lessons from sports, let me say that as a society, we should not be afraid to see our kids fail at a sport. It's OK. It will teach them more than any trophy they will get just for showing up will ever do. Losing or not making the team drives us to try harder…work harder...and to compete. Competition is not always bad folks. We all learned this lesson on playgrounds, ball fields or even in our backyards. We learned to pick ourselves up again…and sometimes again. And, remember how sweet it felt to finally overcome the odds! That is the beauty of sports.
As I have mentioned, there are many attributes we can learn from, some to which I have already alluded to. But certainly for me, the grit that you gain is one of the most important. I don’t know if there’s a scientific study that proves this, but if you stick with it when you “feel” like quitting, I suspect that is an attribute that becomes a part of your character, a part of who you are, and most important, an emotional “muscle memory” that you keep long after you’ve long left the field.
My athletic days of peak performance might have diminished, even though I can still be found on a basketball court three days a week at 5:30 a.m., and playing well mind you. I cherish everything that sports have given to my life. And, I love that my children share my passion for athletic competition….well almost all of them (LOL). So keep at it and keep learning those life lessons along the way. PLAY ON! That’s my take. What’s yours?