I was not a confident kid. Not in my own head anyway. I know, I know, shocking. But true.
But put me on a soccer field or a basketball court or a lacrosse field when I was a kid, though, and I came alive. There was something about being on a team that just lit me up from the inside out. Probably because I was someone different when I was part of a team. The kids saw me as someone else. Someone of value, maybe. Who knows? All I know was that the playing field (pardon the pun) was leveled somehow when I was on a team. We all had a common goal and we all worked together to achieve it.
When I put on that dank, ratty pinny, I turned into someone else. I became part of something special.
We worked together. We supported each other. We got to know each other in different ways, ways you couldn’t always spot across a classroom. We had to. That’s just what was expected and everybody knew it. And although it was mostly unspoken, we all knew that those who didn’t were out. So whatever anyone may have thought of me before or after the game just faded away for those four quarters. I was an equal. And I loved that. I embraced it. Probably because any insecurities I felt as an awkward adolescent kid just melted away when I took my place in that huddle. I was made to feel like I belonged there. And it was beautiful.
My teammates respected me for what I brought to the team. I may not have been the fastest kid out there but they appreciated my effort. They knew I was always going to hustle because I loved the game—whatever the game was—and I was a competitor. They saw me as a mate. And little by little, over time, that transcended off the field and the court. And that changed me. And it changed my life.
Now I know that’s not always the case. I know there are exceptions and there are kids out there who haven’t had the same good experiences I’ve had. Everyone has moments that shake them. But I think, overall, most people you talk to who were either athletes themselves or have kids who are, will agree that most of their experiences were positive. Most got something out of being part of a team and learning, firsthand, what that means. Learning that you have to make sacrifices for the greater good sometimes, even when it means giving up the ball to someone else. Learning that your way isn’t always the best way and sometimes you just have to be a good listener and let yourself be coached. Because we’re all a little narcissistic, to some degree. And being put in a situation where it’s not all about us is a good place to be sometimes. And there’s no better place to learn humility than out there on the court or the field.
We all know that all our kids, at some point or another, become completely egocentric. It’s almost like a bizarre rite of passage that we, as parents, have to endure, just like our parents did before us. But when your kids are part of a team and forced to listen to an adult who isn’t their father or their mother, there’s a shift. Something happens. Egos are tempered. Attitudes are squashed. In fact, oftentimes, our kids will respond better to an objective coach than they will to their own parent. A dedicated and skilled coach can have an amazing impact on a child.
UCLA Basketball Coach John Wooden has said many brilliant things throughout his career, but when he said that sports do not build character, they reveal it, he reached right to the core of what sports means to me. When I heard that, he became my Muhammad, right then and there.
I’ve seen it with myself, transforming from an awkward tomboy to a more confident and solid young woman, just by virtue of being part of something that brought out the best in me. By virtue of strong coaches who led by example and modeled the kind of person I wanted to become. I got there by being forced to reach out to the other kids on my team and learning that there really weren’t very many barriers that separated us after all. I see it with the young girls I coach. I watch them go from running around a track for the first time, breathing fire when they finish, to running a 5K race without stopping and still having gas in the tank at the end. I see it with my own kids. I see how the right sport fleshes out something in kids. It inspires them. It drives them in ways that academic success can’t. It builds confidence and self-esteem. It teaches inclusiveness. It teaches them that being part of something larger than just them has deep and lasting meaning.
I’ve watched my own girls scamper around the soccer field for years, loving it mostly because they were with their friends or because Dave was their coach, but not having that wild competitive desire to be the best in their sport. And then I’ve seen them find, by trial and error, a sport and a team that suited them. That embraced them. And the changes that happened as a result were magical. It ignited something in them. It drove them in directions they never knew they wanted to go. They never knew they could go. It drew them out and drew them in all at the same time.
So as far as I’m concerned, it really doesn’t matter what sport your kids want to play, as long as they play one. Encourage them to shop around and find the right match, because not all sports or all kids are created equal. Because it’s only through being part of something bigger than they are that they’ll truly be able to understand why the word team just doesn’t sound right when you add an “i.”
Lisa Sugarman lives in Marblehead. Read and discuss all her columns at facebook.com/ItisWhatitisColumn OR follow her blog at https://itiswhatitiscolumn.wordpress.com.