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Faith in Youth Athletics

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If youth athletics, as Bill Pennington said in yesterday's New York Times, is a church and parents are a congregation unified by the gospel of college scholarships, I'm happy to pray - and the reasons for my faith have nothing to do with money. While there are certainly a percentage of parents in the pews who are banking on scholarships - and who, as Pennington reports, will likely be disappointed - there are a vast number more of us who are banking on the other benefits of youth athletics, which always seem to be ignored when people start to decry it.

Last Sunday, for example, my 15-year-old daughter rose at 6:00 to take a long drive to play in an expensive special event - the first step in the tryouts for the junior national water polo team. This is precisely the kind of activity that Pennington cites as being family-wrecking, and he would likely call me and my husband misguided, because, even though she is a fine player, she's not likely to make the national cut, win the eye of a major-league college coach or earn the big bucks for her athletic prowess. So why even step onto the field - or in this case, dive into the pool?

As graduates of two of the nation's best liberal arts colleges, my husband and I are both well aware that our daughter's education will be the thing that most powerfully shapes her life. Her ability to think and learn, research and synthesize, problem-solve and create will be what allows her to get a good job, make a good living, and contribute in a meaningful way to a good society. But who she is as a person - what she knows about playing fair, playing hard, the illusive qualities of justice, the intangible qualities of leadership, the limits of physical endurance, the beauty of the body in motion - is being forged in the pool.

Academic topics account for roughly 30% of the significant topics we discuss at the dinner table - the realities of the slave trade, the raw beauty of the mathematics that define our universe, the poetics of Shakespeare. Perhaps another 30% come from the newspaper, movies, books and other cultural influences. The other 40% come from water polo. And many of those 40% have been the really tearful, emotional, gut-wrenching discussions that define who we are as a family and who our daughter is as a human being.

Through water polo, our child has learned how to work with teammates who are more talented than she is, better connected, and more motivated, as well as those who are more lazy, inconsistent, and desperate. She has learned how to take direction from a wide range of coaches who represent a wide range of attitudes - from loud-mouthed and narrow-minded to quiet and unassuming. She has learned how to work hard for something day in and day out, what to do when you get it, and what to do when you don't. She has learned how to sit patiently on the sidelines; how to lead a team to victory; how to perform under pressure; how to entertain herself without a TV, an ipod, a cellphone or an expense account; and how to make friends based on a shared love of an activity. We actually made the decision as a family to stop going to church and start attending weekend water polo tournaments because we truly felt that we were learning more about the meaning of life at the pool than we were in the pews.

Blasphemy? Maybe. But I get so tired of being lumped into a stereotype of parents who are sacrificing all our children's time and our family resources for some elusive college athletic goal. We're getting exactly what we want out of youth sports right now. We're getting the return on our investment right now. We are seeing athletics contribute to the formation of a young woman who will go into the world with confidence, strength and good cheer, even if she never again picks up a ball.

Our younger daughter has recently decided to take up club water polo. She is a completely different character than her sister, and athletics will no doubt shape her in a completely different way. We feel so blessed that she has the opportunity to be involved in this way, and that we have the chance to witness and support the process.

Jennie Nash is the author of Raising a Reader: A Mother's Tale of Desperation and Delight and the recently released novel, The Last Beach Bungalow.

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