Our daughter’s high school basketball team lost in the playoffs this past weekend. She is a senior, so outside of intramurals and pick-up games her basketball career is over.
Two weeks ago the team celebrated Senior Night, always one of the highlights of the season. The gym was not packed with fans as it was for other senior nights pre-Covid, but it still was a terrific moment for the players. Considering we weren’t sure in December if they would even have a basketball season, I think everyone was incredibly grateful the girls got a chance to have their well-deserved moment.
Juliet is our youngest so this represents a milestone for us as parents as well. While we have a daughter who plays collegiate lacrosse, we won’t ever be as vested in youth sports again.
As I lingered in the gym talking to the other parents on senior night and after the final game I reflected on the significance of the moment, and almost twenty years of shepherding our kids through a variety of sports.
Moments like these are often filled with sentiment and nostalgia. Particularly for parents, life experience has taught us how fleeting the “glory days” of youth are. We tell our kids to savor these days because time passes quickly.
Like millions of other parents whose kids played sports our experience was a rollercoaster ride: the joys of winning, the tears after losses, making teams, getting cut, starting, getting benched, countless hours in gyms, pools, bleachers – rain or shine and sometimes snow – mile after mile in the car, the list goes on. It certainly wasn’t always easy (or inexpensive) but I wouldn’t trade any of it.
If I’m being honest, however, and at the risk of sounding preachy, reflecting on this milestone brought to mind a sad truism of youth sports today: we as parents make it happen but we also can be the worst part of it. Often we place too much emphasis on sports in the lives of our kids. Before I continue, just to be clear, I don’t speak from a position of purity here, there are plenty of moments over the past 20 years that I wish I handled differently.
For me it boils down to this – the biggest mistake we can make as parents is forgetting that the youth sports experience belongs to our kids. It is their moment, not ours. Yes, we certainly play an important role, but the moment we start deluding ourselves that what we want matters as much as what our kids want, we lose our way.
It’s an easy slope to slide down. Perhaps our own “glory days” loom heavily in our memories and we want the same for our kids. The desire to protect our kids from disappointment runs deep. The professionalization of youth sports the past twenty years only accentuates the problem.
But here’s the thing – the more we as parents relentlessly politic coaches, the more we get caught up in the “sports arms race” to help our kids get ahead, the more we try to control outcomes, we lose sight of what the experience, the child’s experience, is supposed to be about.
Unless your child is among the less than 1% who someday will get paid to play (and if you think they are you’re almost certainly wrong), the primary value of sports is that they provide a lab for life. By that I mean a safe place for kids to experience the essence of all life has in store for them where the only thing on the line is the outcome of a game.
Through sports they learn how to handle success, deal with failure, work with others and test their limits. They begin to understand the importance of practice and preparation as well as how to deal with authority figures. Here’s another thing they’ll learn – sports, like life, isn’t always fair: the best doesn’t always win, hard work doesn’t always guarantee success, and talent and rewards (like play time) aren’t distributed equitably.
No matter how well intentioned, when parents insert themselves into the parts of youth sports where they don’t belong they rob kids of invaluable learning opportunities. Their child’s glory days won’t truly be glorious if they are not permitted to succeed or fail on their own merits. Whatever baggage we carry from our own experiences, we can’t place it on the shoulders of our kids. One thing I can say for certain after 20 years, kids don’t care about the glory days of their parents and they most definitely are tired of hearing about our expectations for them.
I hated to see the girls lose in the quarterfinals against a team they should’ve beat. The refs were terrible in the first half, something I let them know from the stands. (I told you I’m a work in progress.) Winning the conference title would’ve been a great way for our girls to go out. But defeat is a better teacher than victory, so perhaps my daughter and the other players will be stronger for it. Regardless I hope all the seniors walked off the court firm in the knowledge that even though their high school basketball careers are over, the real glory days of their lives lie ahead.