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“Playing sports builds character.” Ever heard that statement? It may be true, but not necessarily so.
Together, Rachel and Jordan played 30 seasons of organized sports when they were growing up. From 5-year old softball to varsity sports, I’ve seen it all. I have seen that sports can produce any number of sterling qualities like teamwork, commitment, sportsmanship, and resilience. But, it also can produce self-centeredness and it often provides the fertile soil for denial.
During a long-ago softball season, I remember the mother of one of the better players telling her daughter that the reason she didn’t play well was because she didn’t have anyone helping her. “You can’t win all by yourself. Some of the others will have to step up.” Hearing this comment, the young girl grew resentful and condescending toward her teammates. By the end of the game she sat at one end of the bench, away from all the rest who felt the sting of her disdain. Where’s the character? What sort of “team player” will she be in the work force? She may do well, but what I saw that day was an attitude problem she would have to overcome on the way.
Another young softball player refused to pay attention to the coach or do what he asked. She played right field and the coach wanted her to back up throws to second base from the left side of the infield. She crossed her arms in front of her and wouldn’t budge. She refused to move unless the ball was hit to straight to her. The next game when the coach filled out the line up, he listed her as a substitute instead of a starter. When she complained, he told her she would not start a game until she cooperated. Instead of backing up the coach by telling her daughter to do what the coach asked, the mother browbeat the coach until he relented and allowed her daughter to be a starter. Did she learn teamwork? Did she learn anything good or admirable? No, she learned that her parents support bad behavior and disrespect. How will that pay off in the workforce or marriage?
There are also situations where parents want to shield their children from the disappointment of making mistakes or losing. To make children feel better, parents say: it was the umpire’s fault; the other side cheated; the coach plays favorites. In 30 seasons of organized sports, I heard families tell their children these things over and over. Sometimes facts supported these comments, but, as often as not, parents taught children to lie to themselves in order to avoid responsibility for mistakes. Making their children feel better in the moment was more important than building a life of character.
Face it – umpires do blow calls, but learning to protect the plate with two strikes will do more for the child in the long run than learning to look for others to blame for every disappointment. Teach your child to blame others in a game, and they will apply the lesson to work, marriage, and other critical relationships.
If your child pays sports, make sure they learn the right lessons. Make sure they learn that they have to work hard to be a part of the team. Make sure they learn to work hard, no matter what their star status. Make sure they learn that each team member has a role to fill, and all roles are important, not just theirs. And make sure they learn to respect the coaches. If the coaches aren’t worthy of their respect, find a new team instead of encouraging your child’s insolence.
Most of all, teach your child to tell themselves the truth. No one likes to admit they watched the third strike go by without swinging. But sometimes the third out or the losing touchdown is your child’s responsibility. Learning to deal with it will build more character than denial ever will.
And make sure the adults in your family have learned the right lessons. It is your child’s life, not yours. Don’t try to live through them just because you wish your all-star days had lasted longer. Don’t coach during a game. A child can process only a limited amount of advice at a time. If you must add your advice, do it before the game, but not through the fence or from the sidelines (I once heard a female soccer player say she loved the sport because her father didn’t know anything about it and couldn’t tell her what to do). Control yourself during the game. Berating your child, the coach, or the officials does not make you a better parent because you speak your mind. It embarrasses your kid. A lot. If you don’t care about that fact, you need to reconsider who the game is for.
I close with a quote from former Olympic athlete, John Naber:
People often talk about how sports “build character.” Certainly, sports can foster habits of discipline that can be applied in other areas of our lives and thereby make us more reliable or responsible individuals. But good character is not developed through mere participation in sports. Sports provide challenges. Challenges provoke tough decisions. And it’s the tough decisions that really test our character, for character is revealed when the price of doing the right thing is more than we want to pay.
Playing sports does not necessarily build character. But sports can build character. Not only a child’s, but also the parents’.