Sports have affected so many of my life decisions. There are the standard choices, like how much time and money I spent either playing or spectating. There was the unconventional decision to enroll in a university because it had a great football team. My career choice was based on my love of sports, my parenting style draws on lessons learned in sports, and how I maneuver through this world is based around my belief in the concept of sports for social change. And all of this started in my own backyard.
There was always a basketball to shoot, a soccer ball to kick back and forth, or a baseball to catch out in our yard. We tore around town on our 10 speeds. The neighborhood kids would gather for a game of kickball that would last until the dinner bell rang or the streetlights came on. My siblings and I would race each other in any and every thing. Playing with a competitive component was what we did.
Dad coached my town basketball team and mom drove me to the swim center for my meets. Together they cheered from the town park bleachers at my tee ball games. In 5th grade I joined the town’s travel soccer team, which developed into year-round involvement on school, indoor, and district teams for the next 7 years. Simultaneously, I played field hockey in middle school, and tennis, swimming, and basketball in high school. I was never not playing sports. I was good, but I wasn’t great. So when college came, there was a big hole in my life. There were no more year-round teams to be a part of. No more psyche parties. No more uniforms. No more motivation. It was depressing, to say the least. I dabbled in intramurals, and I had to take my college PE credits, but it just wasn’t the same. The team spirit and camaraderie was gone.
So I did what I thought was the next best thing and became a spectator. Fans become their own team, in a way. We cheer together, we grieve together, and we can always agree on something. At Penn State there was always some game or match to attend. When I moved to Baltimore, I had a whole city of fans to high five. And now, I’m a Carolina Caniac. However, as thrilling as watching and gambling on sports can be, it just doesn’t match the experience of playing.
In a sociology course in college, a representative from a local non-profit asked our professor if he could take five minutes of our time to seek out summer camp counselors. Having been a camp kid myself, my interest was piqued. I applied for the job and was hired to work with at-risk youth at a camp outside of Philadelphia. It was there that I decided to change my career path. As a junior I switched my major and went on to graduate with credentials to teach Health and Physical Education to K-12 students. Now, I get to spectate and play, and I get to witness how sports create life-altering changes in the lives of our youth. They are all things that changed my life, but I didn’t know it at the time. Now, watching the kids learn and grow, I realize how impactful sports can actually be.
Mom says she got us into sports because it kept us out of trouble. That’s a very simple explanation of why sports promote positive social change. Yes, sports require a major commitment of time, thereby limiting the amount of time the participant can get involved in other “less admirable” activities, but it’s what they learn in sports that I think is what supports their positive life choices.
I played sports because they were fun. I also knew I wouldn’t be allowed to play sports if I didn’t do well in school. So, in order to play sports, I had to learn time management and how to apply myself, in turn making me a better student. From losses I learned problem-solving, conflict resolution and anger management techniques, all while developing resiliency. From wins and losses I learned about rules and fairness and luck. As a teammate I practiced effective communication styles, diplomacy, and solidarity. I learned to identify my strengths and weaknesses. I learned how to prioritize. I understood that I had to be my personal best every time because my team was counting on me, and that taught me about selflessness, maturity, and motivation. And now, even though I’m no longer playing sports on a daily basis, I own those skills and qualities, and I am able to apply them in other arenas. And they do keep me out of trouble…most of the time.
I coached my daughter’s U10 town league volleyball team earlier this summer. None of the girls had ever played volleyball. Few of them had ever played a sport. And even fewer had ever been on a team. They had a lot to learn in a very short amount of time. I kept it simple. I kept it positive. I kept it light. With each game I witnessed progress, and I was sure to tell each of them what they did that was good. And I was also sure to tell each of them how to get better. They worked on it. And they got better. And in true Cinderella fashion, we beat the best team in our last match of the season. I was the only one who wasn’t shocked. Each of the girls knew that they were getting better as individuals, but I saw the bigger picture developing around them. Afterwards I talked about the whole experience with my friends and said, “They made friends and they had fun, but what was more important was… they won.” And that was me being funny, but I was also being completely serious. Their win was important, because that win proved to the those girls what consistently trying to be their personal best, and doing so together as a team, can produce. And that feels great. And those girls will never forget how great it felt, and they will know they can feel that way again, and they will know how to make it happen for themselves and each other.
Sports do have a way of digging in, planting a seed, and growing us into people who have what it takes to reach far out into this wide, wide world and make it better.