Stoked for Sports
Our son, Oscar, played football as a fourth-grader last year. He was on a team of 3rd and 4th graders and though it was flag football, they wore full pads and helmets. There was plenty of contact: the boys were basically taught the first two steps of tackling—making contact and wrapping up—without taking someone to the ground.
I was uncertain how Oscar would take to the sport. I loved football when I got to play in high school and college intramurals. I made sure, though, that it was his decision to play, not mine. I encouraged him, and was able to describe the virtues of the game—teamwork, sportsmanship, courage, discipline—but I wanted him to want it for himself. He decided to give it a shot.
Turned out, he did great. He was not the fastest or strongest kid on the team, but excelled at the mental part of the game. Catholic Youth Organization is great about emphasizing participation, and he got to see the field a good bit during games. I had the time to be able to volunteer as an assistant coach, and it was gratifying to be out on the field with him during practices and games.
I have three hopes for our kids when it comes to athletics, and getting a good feel for a sport is one of them. Getting them to try a sport is one thing, but because they are beginners and lack skill, they are easily discouraged. For example, a 10-foot goal in basketball can be a long way to shoot a ball when you are in grade school. I hope to encourage them in a given sport long enough for them to get a real sense of the sport—not just how difficult it is, but how rewarding it can be.
Another hope is that they find something they are passionate about. That word “passion,” at its root, has to do with suffering. When it comes to sports, I certainly do not want my kids to suffer, but I do want them to find something they value enough that they are willing to sacrifice for it.
This year, when fall came around and signups for football started, I had a serious conversation with Oscar about his desire to play. In 5th grade, the game moves from flag football to tackle football. I knew that he had a good basis on which to decide, given his experience last fall. He seemed open to playing—“kinda” interested, he said—but there is no room for “kinda” in tackle football. It is a sport that demands commitment.
I asked him about other interests—soccer, for example, or climbing. His eyes lit up when I mentioned climbing. He has always loved to climb, mostly trees and climbing walls. Then this summer he climbed to the top of a smooth light pole next to our house like it was a palm tree. We’ve had him in a climbing summer camp before, but we haven’t given him a regular opportunity to climb.
So, instead of football this fall, we’re taking him to a bouldering gym twice a week. (Bouldering is climbing that does not exceed 10 feet high, and thus does not require ropes and harnesses.) His eyes genuinely light up when we are there. In gym lingo, he is “stoked.”
I suggested that he increase his ability by doing some exercises at home on non-climbing days. He has taken the challenge and is doing some pull-ups and push-ups now after school, and after several weeks of climbing, he is really improving. It is fun to see him having fun, and that he is willing to work at getting better.
The third hope I have for our kids and athletics is that they play at least one team sport, and Oscar has chosen basketball for that, which is great. Winter will be here before we know it.
There is a fine line between encouraging and pushing children in athletics. I’ve seen pushy parents who are too demanding of their kids, and most of the time both the child and the parent are miserable. Sports are, above all, a way to enjoy our bodies. There is a problem if a child doesn’t experience joy in an athletic experience. Yes, the agony of defeat is part of the game, but joy should not be absent.
Sports are also a way to grow in excellence through cultivation of habits—a lesson that translates very well into any other area of life. The key for me in this area is encouraging Oscar enough that he adopts that desire for excellence for himself. If I push him too hard, though, that desire becomes ordered not towards the particular excellence of the sport itself, but towards pleasing me and satisfying my authority.
Judging by his eyes in the climbing gym, he loves to climb and wants to get better. Which makes me, like, totally stoked, bro.