WHAT WE LEARN FROM PLAYING YOUTH SPORTS THAT CAN SAVE US
- Personal experience with the power of sport to overcome prejudice, racism and hatred
No one in the history of mankind was able to choose their parents, their race, where they were born, what they look like or the economic situation they were born into. No one is born racist. Hatred and bigotry have to be learned and nurtured over time and then adopted as a mindset. As a person who has dedicated virtually his entire life to playing sports and working in the sports industry, it is my well-studied opinion that everything one needs to be successful in life is learned when playing team sports growing up. Not only do we acquire personal habits and disciplines that can keep us physically healthy, we also learn what it means to be a teammate and how to work together toward common goals. We don’t realize it at the time, but these experiences become invaluable as we move through life. They positively influence our minds at an impressionable age and give us the tools and confidence needed to overcome the many challenges that life throws at us. When understood in this context, sport is a powerful weapon against fear, superficiality and cruelty.
Anyone who has ever played baseball knows the saying “keep your eye on the ball, stay focused on the fundamentals”. Even at the pro level, when a player is trying to break out of a hitting slump or overcome “the yips” on defense, primary training focus is always on fundamental skills we first learned as children. I believe that the same principle applies to life.
Respecting people who look or think differently from ourselves is the only way to have a healthy, safe and just society. For all of our amazing progress and innovation as a civilization, we are still barbaric when it comes to human rights. A quick look around the globe reveals an abundance of discrimination, persecution, conflict and human rights violations happening every day. We have all the scientific knowledge, technical innovation and money we need to solve the world’s most pressing social and environmental problems, but up to now have lacked the collective mindset and political will power to do so. I am hopeful that the current protests in the US and around the world are the beginning of a new age of enlightenment for mankind. Time will tell. One thing that is for sure, if we don’t solve our human rights issues fast so that we can properly focus our energy on solving our many urgent environmental problems, nature just might take matters into her own hands and solve these problems for us by wiping us out.
The tools we need to come together to achieve equal opportunity and justice for all are not a mystery - communication, respect, understanding, flexibility, teamwork and common sense. The persistent obstacle lies in our inability to use these tools on a daily basis as a collective mindset. Sport is a high-profile showcase for what groups of people from different walks of life can achieve when coming together to take on big challenges. We need to leverage sport’s educational and motivational power to a much greater extent from a social engineering point of view. It is time to expand the scope and mission of youth and recreational sports across to reinforce the ideals and lessons that sport teaches us about everyday life. Now more than ever, there needs to be renewed focus and investment into grassroots sport participation, programs and infrastructure to leverage its power to unite, educate and heal our communities and society at large.
Schools need to regain their lost role in providing sport opportunities to all who wish to participate. Anyone who is has the privilege and responsibility of coaching should be required to complete a minimum amount of on-line training on social and emotional education, if not more, so that coaches understand that their most important job is to teach and reinforce life skills, which in turn lead to better team performance.
A core principle at the heart of all athletes is “Respect”. Respect for ourselves, our bodies, our teammates and especially our opponents is essential for success. It is what drives us to constantly push for improvement both individually and collectively. The world’s best athletes and coaches are keenly aware of how fallible they are, that no one wins all the time and that to have success repeatedly over time requires a higher level of mental focus, preparation and discipline. How many times have we seen an underdog opponent pull off an upset victory because the favored team underestimated or did not respect their opponent to the level they should have?
Respect is also an elegantly simple way to define human civilization, lying at the core of human decency and unalienable rights. Countries, communities, businesses and teams that have an ingrained culture of respect thrive, those that do not lumber along in mediocrity or eventually crumble. The world is witnessing the USA have its long-overdue reckoning with respect and the consequences that follow when a nation allows systemic abuse and injustice to go unchecked. United we stand, divided we fall. It is no coincidence that throughout history, athletes have been some of world’s greatest champions of equality, human rights and the environment. Athletes are accustomed to taking on challenges against bigger, stronger opponents with confidence that success can be had and without fear of defeat because we know that losing makes us stronger. Sport challenges us to never give up on our goals and dreams and to keep pushing forward no matter how insurmountable the objective may seem.
In addition to respect, sport is loaded with essential life skills that would help solve most of humanities systemic problems - if we all only had the courage to think and act this way every day;
Great communication is about transparency, honesty and trust. No team has ever won a title without it. Athletes grow up being coached and welcome open honest critical feedback because we know that is the key to improvement. Teammates learn how to give feedback to one another and how to trust because we share a common objective. Great communication inspires true motivation, cohesiveness and a core belief that together the team can overcome any obstacle.
We learn the importance of role playing, how to lead and how to follow. Every team has a range of talent and skills that form individual roles. All are essential for winning, as no one wins team sports alone. But the process of going through a season together teaches us that at some point everyone is asked to play a different role and “step up”. Some days the team’s best player(s) will have an off day and will assume a supporting role, while a support player can be “hot” and take the lead. Winning teams adjust to daily realities and play to their strengths at any given moment of time, never being side-tracked by personal agendas, always keeping sight of their ultimate goal.
Personal responsibility and preparation for our individual role in the collective outcome. We learn very early on that you never want to be the person did not put in the effort and who let the team down because of not being properly prepared physically or mentally or by not giving your full effort every time you put on your team uniform and walk onto the field.
How to lose, how to win. No one likes to lose but losing is essential to learning, development and improvement. Losing teaches us how to get back up, dust ourselves off, figure out what went wrong and work even harder so that next time the result will be different. Understanding how it feels to lose is essential to understanding what it takes to win and in turn how to be a good winner. Being able to show empathy and respect for the team we just defeated is only possible because we know how losing feels and the last thing we want is for our opponent to give up and quit. Athletes thrive on the challenge, adversity builds determination, strength and resiliency. Losing gives our wins meaning, which in turn provide the confidence we need to set our goals higher and push ourselves further.
How to set and achieve goals. Knowing where you want to go is essential to figuring out how to get there. Learning this early in life gives huge advantages. Sport is the easiest environment within which to teach and learn the power of setting clear goals with clear timelines and then setting out on the path to achieve them.
No one has ever won a championship, built a great company, been a great parent, landed on the moon or succeeded in overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles without mastering this list of skills. Every sports person knows that negativity and selfishness does not win championships! Doesn’t this sound like a winning recipe for building healthy communities, public institutions and governance?
Who am I to preach all of this and why should anyone listen? On the surface, I am a typical middle-aged, middle-class, white guy. After high school I went to college, continued competitive sports, went on to work the sports industry, traveled the world, married an amazing woman, have two great kids, and assembled a multi-national, multi-cultural army of the greatest friends imaginable, most of whom I met through sports. What many people don’t know about me is that I was raised by my Grandmother, grew up poor in one of the most diverse, socially and economically challenged cities in America, Stockton California. I did not always appreciate growing up there at the time but realized pretty quickly after leaving how fortunate I am for having been able to grow up in a place where racial and cultural diversity was the norm and not the exception.
In spite of its many challenges as a city, one thing that Stockton got right was its commitment to sports as a way to keep kids focused on positive activity and out of trouble. Stockton had fantastic, wide ranging youth sports opportunities, tremendous infrastructure through its schools and parks and deep public
support. Almost everyone I knew, boys and girls alike, played one or more sports throughout the year. Because the town was so diverse, we did not care about a person’s color or where they lived. We were all from Stockton, went to school together and loved to play together. The only thing that we truly cared about was “which combination of players will give us the best
chance of winning”? It sounds simple, but isn’t that how it should be in all aspects of life? Most athletes think this way, partially explaining why I am so passionate about the ideals of sport. I honestly believe that sports saved my life and the lives of several of my closest, oldest friends from an early age. My Grandfather passed away
less than 6 months after my younger brother and I moved in, I was 2 weeks away from my 6th birthday. My Grandmother had the wisdom and foresight to sign me up for soccer at the start of the next season, setting me onto what would become my life’s journey. Sport gives us so many tools that we needed to overcome challenges and to be successful, especially as vulnerable teenagers when hormones and emotions are all over the place. Sport provides the foundation for a morally just value system and social code of conduct that serves us forever. Sadly, I also knew kids that stopped playing by the time we were teenagers and ended up getting into serious trouble with drugs, crime, dropped out of school, went to jail and/or died. Most of us who kept playing continued developing in life and went on to have successful careers, families and became
positive contributors in our communities in one way or another. Sport is certainly not the only path to a great life and it is not for everyone. There are many other paths such as music, arts and education, but it is a path that holds the key to a lifetime of physical and mental fitness, essential interpersonal skills, discipline, amazing personal relationships and confidence to overcome obstacles and achieve goals together as a group, respectfully, without insecurity, fear or hatred.
Over the years I have given dozens of talks to business people, youth groups, non-profits and local communities on the positive benefits that sport provides society. We are all born into this world with our own unique reality that each one of us has to live with and make the most out of while we are here. I have never been able to understand how anyone can think that they are better than someone else, blame their problems on others or come to hate because of one’s race, where someone grew up, the clothes they wear or any other superficial reason. We have so many serious problems that need to be solved urgently with the environment and transitioning a sustainable, inclusive, circular economy that we absolutely must unite as “one team” now and reject broken ways of thinking and outdated institutions that are preventing progress. We are all on the same team and the game clock is ticking. Since sports people are eternal optimists, I am hopeful that this is the moment that humanity finally unites to focus on “the fundamentals”, get our “eye on the ball” and create a thriving, just civilization for all persons so that we can save the planet and ensure quality of life for all future generations. Sport teaches us everything we need to know to get it done.
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