"You are never really playing an opponent. You are playing yourself, your own highest standards. And when you reach your limits, that is real joy." -- Arthur Ashe, tennis player and activist, 1943-1993
In America our language of success draws heavily on sporting references. Even sitting at our desks, we're striving to be team players, trying to "knock the ball out of the park." We buy in to the power of sport and sports analogies to define success -- but do our children need to experience sports to learn a "sporting" approach to life?
I am married to an ex-Olympic athlete. When my husband was 12-years-old he became involved in rowing at school. Early success led him to competition at the highest level in a notoriously tough sport. He continued until he was 32-years-old, competing along the way at the Barcelona and Atlanta Olympic Games. Without a doubt, sport positively impacted his life.
In contrast, my childhood sporting career was far less illustrious. Looking back, I realize that as an adult I've actually had to overcome my less-than-stellar childhood experience of organized sport.
Informal, neighborhood sports -- playing tennis in the street or roller derby on the sidewalk -- were a different story. These, I loved. But organized sports were just never my thing. At elementary school I was also a grateful beneficiary of the "everyone makes the team, everyone gets a trophy" mentality.
My best memories of soccer and swimming center on the snacks. Orange slices for soccer and, believe it or not, Jello powder before a swim meet (only in the 70's..).
By seventh grade I was playing basketball and volleyball and even got to shake pompoms as a cheerleader -- "Go, Shamrocks!"
But I was acutely aware of a lack of sporting ability. Despite the retro snacks and cute outfits, my abiding memories are also quite negative -- sitting alone at the back of the activity bus and messing up a cheerleading routine at a championship game.
It wasn't even that bad of a mistake. No one noticed except me. But I didn't like the way it felt. In fact, for many years, that last experience stopped me from wanting to be "on show" for any kind performance.
It wasn't until I started working that things changed. I got over my performance anxiety. I excelled as a waitress and as a campus resident assistant at college. These early work experiences provided the sense of achievement and camaraderie that I'd seen others finding through sport.
Interested in the difference between my and my husband's experience of sport, I surveyed my friends to gain a more balanced view. I asked them which had been more valuable, sports or other extra curricular activities?
The only consistent response in support of sport was recognition of the health benefit of physical activity. Furthermore, what my friends remember of their own childhood experiences, and what they now want for their children, are similar regardless of whether it is sport, music, debating or the chess team.
As a parenting coach I now encounter parents struggling with how to respond when their children no longer want to continue an extracurricular activity. As we talk this through, the parents realize that their values are strongly at play in their perception of their children's choices. On closer examination, what they really want is for their children to know what it feels like to gain a sense of mastery over something.
Does it matter if their child gains that sense of mastery from a violin instead of a football? At the end of the day, I believe it's not the activity that's important, but what you get from it.
Because my own elementary sporting experiences were not the most positive, I let that stop me from exploring opportunities in high school. But through work and college, I was lucky to find another niche. I still like to get involved in my community in many ways. Sport just isn't one of them, unless extreme carpooling joins the roster of Olympic sports in Rio next year.
So I think we need to be vigilant against poor sporting experiences generating limiting beliefs in our children. As the Arthur Ashe quote above suggests, there's much value in a sporting approach to life, but the benefits can be realized from many types of activity. The variety of opportunity that we have today in our schools and communities acknowledges this fact. We just need to make sure that all children have access to it, and the chance to find their niche.
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