It’s more than just a game

I’m watching a kids’ baseball game this morning on a (thankfully) cool morning. My family has a mixed bag of talents, some with extraordinary athletic abilities and others with talents in other areas. 

This morning I am watching as a team of 8 and 9 year olds works out their varying skills on the dusty baseball diamond to come together as a team. There are the usual characters here: mothers and grandmothers; fathers and grandfathers; coaches, older & younger siblings. 

One thing that the grandmotherly perspective affords you is the wisdom of time and a number of years to ponder this thing called life. 

My son played football from the time he was in 3rd grade up until he graduated from high school. A series of concussions and his mother’s “line in the sand” stopped his football playing days at that point, but he enjoyed his reign as a strong and respected starting player and team captain in high school.

My son and I wrestled a bit about the decision to stop going on recruiting visits and concentrate on the next part of his life – the academics of college but he has since shared with me that my hard line was the right choice.

As I watch some of the parents (dads) and coaches get way too serious about the game at times, I want to blow my whistle and call a good old-fashioned football timeout and explain some things that my 52 years has taught me, sitting at ball fields for almost 2 decades now.

Aside from the appearances, team sports teach kids a lot more than how to hit, throw, catch, run and score. It teaches them at a young age that we all show up with varying skill and ability levels. Sometimes we’re the top dog, while other times we’re middle of the road and sometimes we’re at the bottom of the skills ranking. This is an important lesson in life. How many of us show up at work knowing everything there is to know? Few of us, even when hired into leadership positions, can claim this status. We have to learn how to be comfortable in that learner phase so we can grow. We need to learn how to work with others – more skilled and less skilled than us – to accomplish the work we have to do. If we’re lucky, we also learn not to take ourselves too seriously if we happen to be a rock star at something along the way. Like the 5th grade baseball rock star who drops out of college and ends up working at the local mall, our star may rise and fall; and if we’ve burned all our bridges along the way, starting over as a mere mortal will be tough.

I wish we could require youth sports coaches to consider this perspective. It breaks my heart to see coaches ignoring some kids that they perceive as “uncoachable” or incapable of improving while actively engaging others (often their own sons, or kids who can help secure wins for them). But then, perhaps this is part of the learning curve for everyone else. 

In life we will find that there are those who play favorites; there will be times when we feel we’re being short-changed in terms of someone’s time and attention, and there will be times when someone has what seems to be an unfair advantage over you. The secret to success is not figuring out how to avoid people or situations like this, but in understanding that these things happen, and learning how to turn these situations around to your advantage.

The simplest way to make this shift is to remember a few key themes.

1. This too shall pass. Baseball season, like most things in life, eventually draws to a close. Next year there’s a new team, a new coach and a brand new opportunity for you. Take the lessons you learned and leave the negativity behind. Maybe the lesson is that baseball isn’t for you, and it’s time to try out playing an instrument in the band, but the lessons apply everywhere.

2. Be mindful when you’re the favored one. Always remember how it felt when you were on the outside of someone’s favor or had no advantage. Make it a point to reach out, encourage, be kind and include those who are outside of the favor when you’re enjoying it.

3. It’s ok not to be the superstar. When you look at high school football players – many of whom dream of an NFL career – it’s important to understand that of that entire team, only 10% will play football in college, and of those less than 1% will go on to the NFL. I suspect that baseball and other youth sports are similar in their placement in professional sports within a few percentage points. Therefore the biggest reasons to play sports are found in the life and leadership lessons that emerge from the experience.

So let us remember this as we coach and mentor young people of all skill levels and talents in sports, music and more: the blessings are found in the journey, not the destination. The blessings, the joy, the lessons and the wisdom are all found along the way.



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