October 25, 2007

There is Life After Sports

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It all starts with T-ball and Mites on Ice. Who doesn’t have those fond memories of Big League chew and endless orange-slice mouth guards? I, like so many others, can easily recount the leathery feel of my first baseball glove, the shininess of my first soccer ball and the stiffness of my first pair of skates.
Suddenly, the warm fuzziness disappears as the joy and excitement of sports vanishes, replaced by aggressive competitions fraught with the stress of performance and the critical stares of college scouts. When does playing Sunday morning soccer at the YMCA turn into a way of life and is the time spent becoming the ‘best of the best’ really worth it?
Playing team sports is an integral part of the American way of life (the “American Dream”, if you will). From the time kids are three or four, they are enrolled in team sports like T-ball, soccer and hockey. Teeny tiny children, who would much rather be rolling around in the mud, learn the basics of these popular athletic pastimes. I’m not trying to knock childhood athletics. I, like most five-year-olds, spent hours in the backyard with my dad learning how to catch a pop-fly or how to pass a soccer ball and enjoyed (almost) every second.
Most people can relate to these sunny childhood recollections, even if they are short lived. Soon, a sport that was once light-hearted and a fun way to meet other little kids morphs into six practices a week and two or more awkwardly timed games. Some kids thrive on the competitive nature of travel teams and truly enjoy the experience despite how time consuming it can be.
But what are they missing? Other activities and hobbies like art, music and even schoolwork, fall to the bottom of the priority list when you play on your school’s soccer team and a travel team, simultaneously. I’d be willing to bet that this lifestyle sounds pretty familiar, so maybe you should ask yourself the same question.
In high school, nothing is more important than distinguishing yourself from your peers, or so the guidance counselors tell you. Many kids try to use sports as their ticket into college and if they’re lucky, hefty scholarship packages. Sadly, high school tends to be the time period when athletes lose the “love” for the game. The stress becomes too intense and the price of having an off day becomes too high. Kids can’t enjoy playing the game because they are too worried about the people watching it.
For talented athletes, grades are not the only thing that gets them into the top schools, like our very own Cornell, it’s how they play when scouts are watching or how they perform at summer scouting camps. Obviously, I love college sports or I wouldn’t be writing in this section of the paper, but who is really benefiting here?
It is undeniable that some kids get the opportunity to go to universities they could not afford to go to because they are recruited to play sports. However, the percentage of high school athletes who dedicate their whole lives to their sport who even get to play on their college’s varsity team, much less receive a full ride to do it, are a small handful — painfully small.
So what happens to these dedicated athletes who arrive at college and no longer have a full time sport to fill their time? What kind of clubs and hobbies do they get involved in if all they’ve ever known is sports? Club and intramural teams are available, but most of those take up a tiny fraction of the amount of time that high school and travel teams once occupied.
Many kids are left with a gaping hole to fill in their schedule and in their hearts, and that can be a daunting undertaking. It not only means finding new interests but also finding a new way to define yourself. In high school, many athletes identify themselves as jocks or by the specific sport they play. When you are no longer playing that sport competitively, suddenly you are faced with the terrifying realization that you have to redefine your identity. Sure, plenty of kids delay the inevitable by drowning in four years of beer and mixed drinks occasionally surfacing during finals week each semester to keep themselves in school, but that method is really only procrastination. After college, most people identify themselves by the jobs they have or the careers they pursue but is that enough for an identity?
I love sports. I love watching sports and I love playing sports. But I learned early on that I shouldn’t define myself only by the sports I play. Not all kids are fortunate enough to learn that or are even encouraged to consider that. I think athletic involvement is an extremely important aspect of growing up because all sports teach kids valuable skills and lessons. However, they shouldn’t be the only extracurricular in anyone’s life, if for no other reason except that you can’t play sports forever. Sooner or later, a day comes along when everyone is going to search for something more, not because sports are inferior, but because one thing is not enough to fill your whole life.
The consequences of this lack of identity perpetuate themselves in a vicious cycle. These unfulfilled young adults grow up into parents who push their own children into dedicating their entire young lives to athletics. Parents attempting to live vicariously through their children are actually the most lethal enemy of all sports because the unintentionally steal all the fun and spontaneity out of playing a game. Those kids grow up and the cycle continues.
In a society where a somewhat maniacal sports culture is considered the norm for many kids, how does anyone know where to draw the line?