Saturday, May 16, 2015

Our Children are Allowed to be Great

In less than a year, two different articles have popped up in my Facebook newsfeed multiple times about how sports, more specifically travel or "elite" sports, are evil. I'd like to say I have a completely unbiased opinion on this topic. But that would be a lie. I'd also like to lie and tell you that travel sports are completely peachy keen, peace is love, everybody's a winner, organizations. But they are not.

The reason for that is this: NOT EVERYONE IS A WINNER.

And before the smoke starts billowing out your ears, I mean that in a very broad, life is hard, you don't always get what you want, sense. Not that people are losers.

Life is full of tough lessons, and one of the toughest, and most powerful lessons is that you are not always going to get what you want, and if you want something badly enough you have to work for it, like really hard, and not just wish for it blowing out a magical candle while throwing a coin into a magic wishing well, while wishing on a shooting star. You get the idea.

One of the biggest issues I have with these articles are the huge, sweeping generalizations. There are tyrant coaches and parents. There are coaches and parents alike who are driven by greed and pride and money. But this is not true of the entire concept of travel teams or "elite" sports. These articles, Where the Elite Kids Shouldn't Meet and The Race to Nowhere in Youth Sports, are, much like just about any parenting article found on the internet, guilt tactics for parents doing things differently. You don't want your kids playing travel sports? OK. You don't want your kids to be a part of an "elite" sports team? FINE. Maybe your kid doesn't want that either, and that is ok. But maybe, just maybe, other kids do.

I was one of those kids. You couldn't lock me out of the gym, and even the most tyrant of coaches who cussed and yelled at me at age 11, couldn't get me to quit. Instead, I took notice that he only did that with the players he felt had collegiate potential, and I took it as a compliment. Negative to a positive, just like that. Did my parents reevaluate that particular program? Yes. And after the season had been completed, noting that this program did not uphold the same family values which were important to us, we took our talents elsewhere, so to speak. I say we, but really, that was all the greatness of my parents. I cried and cried about leaving those friends behind, but they truly knew and understood what was important, and I made new friends.

I was a good basketball player. No. Actually, I was pretty great.

That makes you mad, doesn't it? That irritates you, and gets under your skin just to read it, and you're debating now, whether you want to keep reading this piece of garbage blog, or tell me what a pompous, arrogant cuss word I am.

But here's the thing; our children are allowed to be great. We are allowed to tell them they are great, and acknowledge, nurture, and cultivate their talents, and ya know what? They are completely capable of knowing that they are great at something without being a pompous, arrogant cuss word. There are plenty of well adjusted, kind and humble, talented athletes out there. You just don't hear about them in the news because they aren't raping or beating women, and they're not abusing drugs. See how that works? It's been nearly 15 years since I was in the prime of my basketball career, and it's taken nearly that long for me to actually admit that I was good. I learned, at an early age, that people don't like you when you're really good at something, and the people who actually admit they're good at something deserve nothing but seething glares and unmasked contempt. So, as much as I wanted to be able to take a compliment without turning around and awkwardly commenting on one of my flaws, I wanted friends more. I wanted to be liked. Truth be told, my desire to be liked was so strong, that I believe, if not for my love and drive for basketball, I could have been susceptible to a lot of tragic teenage mistakes. Travel basketball was a safe place for me. I was mostly surrounded by a team of other girls who loved the sport as much as I did, and understood me; girls who wanted to play it more than just the average school basketball season, and we had fun

There's this misconception that if you are working that hard, it can't be fun. Not true. I learned that my hard work turned into fun. Newsflash: Winning is fun y'all! But we didn't always win. No. I learned a lot about losing. Which is why I take such issue with this next paragraph from the first article:

"We're nearing the point in youth sports where we need to stop the "elite" and "select" madness because we're raising a generation with too much self-esteem. They can't handle failure because they've been conditioned to believe they're too good to fail. They're being placed on teams that identify them as better than their peers on the whim of either a parent/coach or a businessman/coach."

Travel ball is exactly where I learned about failure. Playing against the best of the best is where I learned how to lose, where I learned how to appreciate the talent of others, where I learned that I wasn't the best, and where I learned that I wanted to get better. I played in a high school program that didn't lose a league game for 10 years. Even the referees wanted to see us lose. But when I traveled, I met more girls like me, who wanted to practice and constantly improve. Suddenly, I wasn't all that special. I was just another fish in the sea, getting my shot blocked by All-American athletes. It was through these "elite" programs that I learned about having a healthy level of competition where appropriate, and how to leave it on the court. I was friends with some of my competition, and I admired the talents of many players I played against who went on to play in the WNBA or the Olympics. We are living in a society that wants to teach kids about failure and losing, while also keeping them stagnant so that everyone is on a level playing field. If you want to teach kids that they aren't, in fact, the greatest, you need to show them what the best looks like. If you want to teach them about failure, you need to allow them to play against the best, and fail. You can't have it both ways. You can't simultaneously teach them about losing and failure, while not allowing them to opportunity to do so.

Also, with decent (not even exceptional) parenting, there are other ways to teach your children these things and still encourage them in their talents. Encourage them to try new things. Most people aren't instantly good at everything. To this day, I'm not sure if my dad encouraged me to play tennis because he genuinely wanted me to take a break and try something other than basketball, or because he felt the pressure of a community rumoring that he forced me to play basketball, not allowing me to do anything else. Either way, I went out for the tennis team my freshman year of high school, and I wanted to quit. Basketball, for me, was like learning how to walk. I'd been doing it so long, I didn't remember learning or ever being bad at it. Picking up a tennis racket at 14 taught me all about being bad at something. I went from being top of the league in basketball, to bottom of the league in tennis. I lost every. single. match my first year. I had a decision to make. I could either quit, learn to be ok with being bad, and just enjoy the bus rides and dinners out with my friends and teammates, or...OR I could apply what I had learned with basketball; the outcome of practice and hard work. It was a learning process, often uncomfortable, and often to the embarrassment of my parents. I stumbled through, throwing fits on the tennis court when I missed a shot, hitting myself in the calf with the racket (to the point of serious bruising) when I lost a point. I was told that if I smashed my racket into the ground, there would be serious consequences, so I used my body instead. Consequences still ensued...

I was never a great tennis player, and I was ok with that, but winning is far more fun than its less popular counterpart, so I worked hard to do that more often.

It should be noted that my basketball career didn't turn out nearly as stellar as I had once dreamed. I didn't play in the WNBA. I didn't play in the Olympics. I didn't get to play at my college of choice. I was never able to break into the career of coaching, and I'm not even using that free college education I worked so hard to attain. Oh, unless you consider the job of running a household and educating my children daily. Then, sure, I only use it every day. But even though things didn't work out according to my plans and my dreams, I don't blame the system. I don't blame my coaches. I don't blame my parents. Sometimes, things just don't work out, but we need to stop thinking there is something seriously flawed in a system where every child doesn't grow up to become a major success. That's LIFE. And success can be marked in sooooo many different ways.

No one is great at everything, everyone has different talents and gifts, and instead of making parents feel guilty about labeling their children great or, God forbid, "elite," maybe we should all just find different ways of encouraging our children in their gifts.Their greatness does not have to be in comparison to others. Teach them how to compete with themselves, and how to be the best version of themselves they can be.

So what if your child isn't the best kid on the basketball team. Maybe they're great at a different sport. Maybe they are really musically talented. Maybe they are very bright and excel in school rather easily. Maybe they are a beautiful dancer. Maybe they are incredibly artistic. Maybe they have gifts which cannot be measured in medals, trophies, or ribbons. My word, what a joy to hear someone compliment the heart of your child! That they may have a great heart for humanity and desire to serve and help others!

But don't stifle the greatness of other children because it offends you. Don't judge parents, trying to make a better life for their child because you don't like the way they're doing it.

But also, please, tell me all about how we are avoiding raising up elitist, entitled, pompous cuss words by removing the goals? Please tell me, how are we teaching our children the value of hard work and commitment in sports leagues where coaches are told to play every player equally, no matter how many practices they may have missed? Please, please, please teach me about how we are teaching our children about losing and failure in leagues which refuse to keep score, schools which no longer rank their students, and talent shows with no ribbons, because we don't want to hurt their feelings? That's a little bit pot and kettle, don't ya think?

It does not have to be one extreme or the other, but what exactly are you teaching your child when you remove their opportunity to be great?  

I no longer have goals or aspirations to be the best basketball player I can be, but the lessons spill over. I want to lose this 75 lbs (that's right, SEVENTY-FIVE POUNDS) of pregnancy weight. I don't need to be the skinniest, the fittest, the most elite mom in the world. I want to be the best mom I can be, and I just can't do that feeling the way I feel right now. I know that that fat isn't going to burn itself, and my whining about other mothers losing pregnancy weight better than I can, isn't going to do the trick either. So I will hop off my high horse, and work for it. :-P

But seriously, you do what you do. Raise your child how you see fit, and I will continue to encourage my children in their talents and gifts, whatever they may be. I may even instill hope in them, that they might be able to reach their dreams one day, no matter how unlikely, and I may even utilize tools such as travel teams, elite teams, and AAU programs to help them to get there, if they so desire. I just might. But I can do those things, and still teach them how to be decent human beings.

Yours truly,
A less than stellar, average really, former but not bitter, athlete, who truly enjoyed the "race."