When I was eight our family moved from the insular Jewish community of Skokie, Illinois to a racially mixed working class neighborhood in Milwaukee. A fish-out-of-water in a-sink-or-swim situation, during the first day at my new school I floated to the basketball court at recess.
As the new kid, small and pale, I was picked last. But I knew how to pass the ball, so I found a role on a team. Finding a way to fit into a new environment was life-lesson-through-sports number one. Playing sports provided playground acceptance, maybe even early '70s street cred.
Not that I knew this at age eight, but playing sports paved avenues to exploring new cultures. It created common language with people, who on the surface had nothing in common. Sports helped us view each other as individuals and as equals until someone of us proved superior, and only then at a certain skill, and only then temporarily.
At the end of the game we were still teammates or, at worst, opponents, who respected each other for giving our all. Later that day, and most days, we switched sides and did it again, always with a different game result, but always the same post-game result: respect. In playing sports, we found simple, decent, honest human respect, regardless of our differences.
Learning how to do that, hell, even learning that you can do that, is why sports are valuable for our children to play.
Sports are packed with many other opportunities for deeply important life lessons:
- You get out of an endeavor what you put into it (any endeavor, the sport itself, school, family life, career, spirituality).
- You need teammates, and they need you.
- Whether you think you can, or think you can't, you're right.
- Lead, follow or get out of the way.. and learn when and how to do all three sometimes in the same game.
- And, with gratitude to the late Jim Valvano for emphasizing what every child should learn through sports, "Don't give up; don't ever give up."
These lessons through sports improve (and often save) children's lives, helping them become better students and eventually better mothers, fathers, coaches, mentors, friends, public servants, professionals and those of less-celebrated title, who also set examples and pass along values that serve our society.
In areas where it is not safe for children to gather spontaneously and play sports freely (and in areas where it is safe, but people are convinced otherwise), we turn to organized youth sports. Sometimes youth sports today includes helicopter parents, win-at-all-cost coaches, boorish spectators, the occasional brawl and costly travel team run by opportunists who demand year-round premature sport specialization at risk of injury to your child, lest you fail to keep up with Joneses and cost Junior the chance at a pro sports career.
Still, it is valuable for our children to play sports, especially in schools and youth sports organizations, which is why Positive Coaching Alliance partners with them to train their administrators, coaches and parents in emphasizing life lessons and character-building for children. Sports provide the chance to learn teamwork, persistence through adversity, and basic human respect for oneself and others that could literally save lives from Ferguson to Fallujah.
Sports -- our secular religion, attracting greater participation and attendance than any other activity -- is our best chance to teach children the life lessons necessary to secure our future together.
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