For the last six or seven years, most of my weekends have been spent at some sporting event or another. The early years included weekends at Harper College for Shotokan Karate tournaments. These days I travel to exotic places like Bloomington for three day swim meets.
I am sure that my friends who do not have children who are actively involved in competitive youth sports must think I am crazy. And while I do my fair share of complaining about the time spent away from home, there are three things I know for sure.
One, I am privileged to be able to offer these opportunities to my children. Two, I enjoy meeting new people and renewing relationships with other parents of the nomadic sports tribe like college classmates from Denison University, Annaliese and Joe Fierstos. And three, above all else, I cherish the time I am able to spend with my children alone in the car.
Notice I did not mention that I love to see my children excel in their chosen fields. Don’t get me wrong, because like everyone else I hate to lose. And those who know me will attest to the fact that I have a bit of a competitive edge. The combination of good genes, hard work, and good fortune have resulted in both my girls being successful.
But more important than their place on the podium is the fact that both of my children are growing into good human beings who practice good sportsmanship. What I am most proud of is not what color their medals are, but how they treat those who they compete with and against.
One of the things that I took some getting used to with Shotokan Karate is that cheering from parents is strongly discouraged. In the Japanese Buddhist and Zen traditions, students and Shihans (or masters) of Shotokan are taught to develop and exhibit humility, respect, compassion, patience, and both an inward and outward calmness.
This also applies to the spectators observing kata, khihon, and kumite in that they are expected to sit and observe without comment. I find this particularly hard to do, especially in a sport like karate that is subjective and not objective. Hold your pinky at the wrong angle, aren’t low enough in a stance, or have your feet one centimeter out of alignment and boom, you lose.
However, one of the things I find most impressive about this pursuit is the respect for elders and competitors. There is no arguing with or second guessing the guidance of the coaches. The instructions they give to their students are followed and never discounted because of the sex, age, or ethnicity of the coach. And, even if your opponent laid you flat on the floor and drew blood a mere minute earlier, competitors bow, shake hands, and embrace at the end of each match.
You see all sports (yes, even American football) can build character and teach invaluable life skills and lessons - that is until the wrong parents bring the ugliest of real world forces into play and ruin it.
Sports teach children important life lessons. Two of the big ones at the top of my list are the promotion of self-discipline and the postponement of current pleasure for future success. In a world of instant gratification these lessons are ones that we all need to observe.
And while some people argue that swimming and karate are individual sports, they are in fact team sports. Being in the pool or dojo for hours on end five to six days a week builds team chemistry and camaraderie that extends beyond the practice space.
Older athletes serve as important role models for the younger ones. One of the things I so loved about the McDonough County Dolphins YMCA Swim team as a new parent was the fact that high school swimmers and their parents continued to participate on the team and encourage the youngest of swimmers. I will never forget the look in my then 6 year old’s eyes when then high school swimmers took time to encourage her to keep up the hard work. Nor will I forget the kindness and wisdom of the parents of the older swimmers who helped me learn to navigate the waters around other parents who they deemed toxic to the overall well-being of the team.
Above all else team sports teach athletes to work as a cooperative unit to achieve a group goal. Coaches regularly assign athletes to certain events based not only on their individual merit, but their value to the overall goal of the team. At the 2014 YMCA nationals, Ryan Held, a 2016 Gold medal Olympian and native of Springfield, IL swam seventeen races in four days - the most swims of any athlete at the meet. He helped carry his team to a 13th place finish in the team standings by swimming a relay. As a team, this is their best standing to date. According to his former coach, “All it take is heart and effort.”
Working together towards a shared goal encourages clear decision making in times of stress, acknowledgement that we don’t ever do anything without the help of others, resilience in the face of adversity, and courage under pressure. Above all, whether the lessons are overt or implied, honesty, accountability, respect for others, and fair play are encouraged. These are skills that when the life of the youth athlete are over, can last a lifetime.
As New York Times writer Heywood Broun (December 7, 1888-December 18, 1939) wrote, “Sports do not build character, they reveal it.” So butt out parents and let sports reveal the best of the human potential, not the worst of it.
Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a Professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.