Sidelined for another season
Once again we are watching the other kids from the sidelines while my active 6-year-old son recovers from his second broken leg in a 12-month period.
Perhaps because our community is remarkably athletic, the result is above-average competitive-parenting, and the need to stay in the game seems heightened. And after months in a full-leg cast, and because this is his second go around, I’m reflecting on if this might impact his elementary-age experiences, or even his future interest in sports.
Sure, growing up here means being surrounded by exceptional talent. Over the weekend my daughter’s skating show included guest performances by both former and current Olympic athletes. It’s inspiring and feels attainable and, yet, it also ratchets up the pressures to excel in athletics.
Personally, my competitive edge has never been particularly sharp. I enjoy everything that the mountains offer, and I’ve played most of the seasonally appropriate sports. But as a kid I was the flower-crown maker in the outfield at softball games in the summer. I sang my way down the mountain as the caboose in ski school. In fact, I believe I was one of the best benchwarmers on the seventh grade basketball team – I could rhyme any player’s name to a peppy chant within the swoosh of a basket.
Back then, as far as my coaches were concerned, that’s where I belonged, because winning was very much the emphasis and I was average. Fortunately I was fine with it, but I believe it could have been crushing if I had wanted game time.
So it wasn’t any wonder that my enthusiasm for sports, coupled with a lack of competitive instincts, led me to finally find my niche on the high school cheerleading squad. I felt relieved that I could participate in all the social excitement without feeling the need to equate my self-worth with the scoreboard. I enjoyed cheering for my super athletic friends without feeling sidelined or benched. After many years, and some hindsight, I can recognize how the intense pressure to win had already siphoned the fun out of many sports for me, even before I had finished middle school.
Now, raising my own kids here where Olympic ambitions can seem well within reach, I find myself back on the youth sports circuit simply hoping that there will be a movement toward playing just for the fun of it. Because my son, like most boys his age, loves and needs a physical release, sports should be that place for him. Athletic aspirations probably shouldn’t be defined by first grade, and it seems like it shouldn’t be taken so seriously so early.
And perhaps, because we can’t participate right now, I have become more aware of just how much kids are doing at very young ages. With this unintentional outsider’s perspective on our community youth athletics, I’m seeing the nature of the games from a new viewpoint.
I believe athletic play is a fantastic way to explore and learn about the social structures that make up our cultural boundaries; still I am curious if there is an overemphasis on winning. Not only on the field, but also in the game of life I sometimes notice the tendency to overperform translating into living through competition. In this town we are surrounded by opportunities along with the means to take even over-invested sport-parenting to new levels.
Because everything competes for our precious free time, the amazing and overwhelming abundance of youth programs, keeps me anxious about which direction to take. I could stage-mom it, soccer-mom it or even tiger-mom it, or just go full throttle like some families I know, and try an all-of-the-above approach. Do I run the risk of inadvertently allowing my children to miss out on discovering their true calling because we didn’t sign up for cello lessons, or try fencing? But, if we do all that, than when do they get to just be kids and play? What is that balance?
Like most parents, I just want to guide my children, and give them the tools I guess I’ve determined may help them to succeed, excel even.
But perhaps those great intentions fall short when we begin to structure all so-called play.
I believe that most of us really do strive for some balance. It seems more likely than not that there is only a noticeable minority pushing too hard. It’s easy to spot the overburdened child who is specializing by elementary age, playing out of season, with private lessons and excessive hours dedicated to a year-round focus.
But I venture to guess that many of us in this valley push because we are worried that our kids will fall behind in our hyper-athletic, ultra-competitive, highly visible and success-driven community.
Youth sports open so many doors, but a valid criticism may be that when mismanaged they overemphasize competition replacing the desire to play just for fun with the need to win. Kids see the world in a much more polarized way. So if you are not a winner, does that automatically make you a loser?
With all these thoughts and concerns piling up for me, it came as a relief to receive an article shared by the elementary school physical-education teacher, which emphasized finding that balance between competition and fun. Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program, encourages a much-needed shift to resist the win in our youth sports culture. He points out that we can learn from the Norwegian medal sweep at this year’s winter Olympics, how their cultural philosophy on sports – to play for the sake of fun – brings out the best in athletes. We must be doing something right in this valley with so many locals at this year’s Olympic Games.
It truth, children learn a lot from organized sports, but they also learn so much from just playing. I think they probably learn even more when they don’t feel anxious, pressured or judged. Perhaps it is best to try to focus on fun first and keep score later.
Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind; after all, if we always agree what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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