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Youth Sports: Sunday musings…8/25/19

Sunday musings…

1) Westbrook. Russell Westbrook was traded to Houston?! When did that happen? Reunited with Hardin. How is that a better idea now?

2) Luck. As in Andrew Luck. As in lucky to have his wits enough about him to realize that the near-constant reality of injury-rehab-repeat as an NFL quarterback was making  him unhappy to the point of being unhealthy.

Ans so he has retired at 29.

He will re-pay the Colts for either $12MM or $25MM depending on the reading of his contract, but will leave the NFL having made at least 40 or 50MM, so money is not the issue. Disaffected Colts fans are unhappy because he waited until 2 weeks prior to the season to make his decision, putting the team in a difficult personnel position. I can honestly sympathize with that feeling among hardcore fans, but ultimately Luck worked in a meat factory where he was just one more piece of meat. And he said no more.

Fair winds Mr. Luck. I walked away from amateur football at 21, the game done with me before I was done with it. Not you. May you be at peace.

3) Sport. The retirement of Andrew Luck comes on the heels of a series of events and subsequent opinion pieces on those events regarding the state of youth sports in the U.S. You’ve doubtless heard all of this before. Single-digit aged athletes who are single-sport specialists and all of the pitfalls therein. Participation in sports overall is apparently in the midst of a decline. Something like 45% to 37%, or numbers to that effect.   Did you know that the average age at which this cohort retires is 11? No, not 11 years of participation (I hesitate to call it “play”), but age 11. Washed up before they get to try out for a Junior High JV team.

What was your youth sports experience like? Mine was strongly influenced by the times of my upbringing. The 60′s and 70′s when I was playing local league and school sports had yet to spawn the tyranny of youth travel teams (except for hockey) and all of the havoc they wreak. I’ve written on this here on Random Thoughts at length (search “Three Sport Athlete”), but this latest news about the corrosive effects of early hyper-competition prompt me to spend a few more moments on the topic.

Among the many benefits I accrued from being a team athlete was learning how to both lead and be led. At least as important was learning how to sublimate my ego, my own need to not only excel personally but also be singled out for excelling, in favor of the more generalized success of my team. Tough, tough lesson, that. As a genetically programmed early achiever I certainly would have been selected for any number of teams that were filled through scouting, recruiting, and try-outs. Looking back I can hardly imagine a worse outcome for me as a kid. You see, I wasn’t really all that good, or at least it turned out that whatever gifts I may have been given at birth only made me look good in the earlier stages of an athletic career. With the exception of a little mini-peak as a college sophomore (and that only occurring due to an injury to the player who beat me out for the position), my reign as a standout talent was probably over as a high school sophomore.

What if I’d been on some sort of elite travel baseball or basketball team, all of my efforts (and likely substantial family assets) devoted to the singular pursuit of some sort of athletic achievement? It wouldn’t have been my choice to leave the games, someone would have escorted me out.

Kids who are true athletes, who will be capable of having some kind of advanced career in college or beyond, will find their way even if they aren’t put on a one-sport super highway at age 7. Andrew Luck is actually a pretty good example; I think he played pretty much everything well into high school. Heck, LeBron James was a heckuva wide receiver through 10th grade. Now we have personal quarterback coaches recruiting 8 year olds, parents being led on like so many sheep9ii. Not kidding. 8 years old and being taught how to read coverages in the secondary when you’re supposed to be learning how to spot bubbles in the sand so that you can dig up those cute little crabs that live 2 inches deep at low tide.

Please don’t get me wrong; this isn’t a missive about participation trophies and not trying to win. I am all about the lessons to be learned in preparing to win, and those you hopefully learn about how to comport yourself as both winner and loser. Ya gotta keep score to learn those lessons. The world keeps score for everyone eventually. It’s just a much better way, and time, to learn that lesson by playing youth sports. But playing on teams with kids who are both better and sometimes much worse at playing the games than you might be is in itself also a very worthwhile lesson to learn as a kid. How much better would I have been at life in general if I’d been a little aware of that part of the sports curriculum when I was a kid.

While I’m talking mostly about team sports I truly believe that many of these lessons are there to be learned in the individual sports as well, especially those in which you compete as an individual in a team setting. Think swimming, track and field, and any number of high school sports like tennis and golf. My buddy Chuck was number 1 on the tennis team from the minute he set foot on campus as a freshman, and yet he was arguably the most beloved member of that Williams team for all 4 years. Why? Well, partly because he never lauded his excellence over a single teammate, but mostly because he openly reveled in the TEAM outcomes, not his own W-L. Although he certainly entered his share of USTA Junior tournaments he never left his high school team in so doing.

Youth sports at their finest are played locally on teams consisting of kids who grew up together. Kids who spent lazy summer days touring their town hunting salamanders or hanging out at the city’s local Boys and Girls Club, away from harm. I can’t begin to count the number of boys who matriculated at one of our local Catholic boys’ schools specifically to play their chosen sport, only to be washed out of the program before 10th grade. How much more fun might they have had if they had gone to their home town high school and continued to play one or several sports with the kids they grew up with? My oldest son, Dan, went to school with a boy who went to St. Somebody as a 3-sport athlete and by the time he got to Junior year he was down to being an afterthought on just one team. It was heartbreaking because on a talent-basis he should have been starting on at least two varsity teams. His response? Well, he transferred to his hometown public school, played two sports, and had a ball. Got a D1 scholarship, too.

It’s time for a re-birth of local sports. Town leagues where kids get to play with their friends. A chance to learn a bit more about a sport, maybe even to excel, but more so a chance to be a kid having fun playing a game. At least at 8, no? At least until they begin to mature in adolescence, or at least until we start making cuts in high school. Play with your buddies. Learn how to be a good teammate, to win and lose with equal grace. To coexist, perhaps to thrive, with teammates who may not be quite as good at the game as you might be.

The average age at which children retire from organized sports is 11. That is a far greater tragedy than Andrew Luck retiring from the NFL at 29.

I’ll see you next week…

One Response to “Youth Sports: Sunday musings…8/25/19”

  1. August 25th, 2019 at 6:46 pm

    BEAR '81 Williams College says:

    Well done as usual Dr. White. I played baseball and basketball in High School until I was relatively terrible at both. Ran the 100/220 and 880 relay and threw the shot and discus.
    Obviously played football…tried to play lacrosse at Phillips Exeter and the AD wouldn’t even let me tryout because I didn’t play at Sayville High School in on Long Island.

    So along comes Renzi and says if you aren’t going to throw the Hammer for Dick (Farley) you are going to play lacrosse for me. I think that is one reason we had so few soft tissue injuries back then and these one sport specialists do.

    RIP Renz. Miss you everyday.

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