Play Hard. Have Fun. Do Your Best.

Orange. Strawberry. Grape. Root Beer. The reward for playing a great game. Or maybe it was the reward for a not so great game. I really don’t remember the actual game but I do remember the sweet nectar found in the coach’s cooler. Cheap off brand soda that had us scrambling and working hard to get to the cooler first. The game itself may have been over, the score recorded into the history books, but the real competition always came after the game. Losing at this competition usually meant being stuck with a cream soda. That was bad. The game itself? Man, we just played. Everybody wanted to win but at the end of it all… we just played. No pressure from parents. The coaches didn’t scream or throw a fit. The umpires were jovial and enjoyed the game. We were just kids. 7, 8, 9 and 10. Summertime meant baseball and baseball meant playing until past dark on fields without lights. It also meant cheap soda. And good times.

We kept score. You had better believe we kept score. It mattered. It was the most important thing in the world for an hour or so. After that? The score was recorded into that famous history book where all little league scores are kept and quickly forgotten by the participants of both teams. We left the field, went home, watched TV, ate ice cream and carried on with life. Even when we lost. My dad never sat me down and told me about all the mistakes I had made in the game. He never told me that my coach sucked and didn’t know what he was talking about. He never mentioned anything really. If he didn’t make it to the game, because parents didn’t come to every game or practice back then, he would ask how we did – not how I did but how WE did. There was a simple and subtle lesson in that one word. It was, and remains in my mind, a team sport. He would always ask if I had fun. Always. Seemed like a dumb question back then. Did I have fun? What? I was playing baseball dude. Of course it was fun.
I remember winning a 2nd place ribbon for a bicycle race when I was in 5th grade. In fact, I still have it and it is one of my most cherished awards ever. Second place? The first loser? Yes. 2nd place. Why do I care about this dumb ribbon so much? Because it reminds me of a time when the competition was between kids – not the adults watching. It reminds me of a time when I dug deep and pushed myself out of the inner desire to win. Sure, I lost but it was a good day for me. I worked hard, had fun and did my absolute best. Was I disappointed about not winning? Sure I was. I lost to a ninth grader on a ten speed (remember those things) but that was not an excuse. In fact, my old Huffy dirt bike with the knobby off road tires beat several older kids on much better bikes. I lost because, despite trying as hard as possible, that other kid beat me. The world didn’t end and, best of all, nobody pointed out my flaws. When I showed my dad the 2nd place ribbon he didn’t ask who beat me, what kind of bike they had or even tell me that I would do better and “get them next time”. He simply told me he was proud that I had worked hard and had fun. Simple words – big impact.
Another great memory is from a weight lifting competition. I was 11 years old and weighed 90 lbs. How can I remember that I weighed 90 lbs? Because I bench pressed a whopping 120 lbs to win the top medal. I don’t have the medal anymore but, honestly, it wasn’t very important. I was more excited to discover that I could do much more than I thought. I was skinny and not the best athlete in town. I definitely wasn’t the first kid picked for kickball, baseball, basketball or football. I was usually picked towards the end of the middle. But that day I felt the exhilaration of success and the genuine surprise in the words of congratulations from the adults in charge. A few words of praise from those in charge meant the world to me. I never even bothered to tell my dad about the medal- it was that insignificant at the time but the memories of the accomplishment remain solid. I could have came in dead last in the competition and still walked away feeling great about myself.
In 3rd grade we played flag football. The league, for me, was a great place to learn the game. Only a few things really stand out from that season. My coach was not a jerk. He didn’t yell or scream at us if we made a mistake. He was quick to use mistakes as an opportunity to learn while making us feel like we were superstars. I don’t remember his name but I do remember the example he set. We played under the lights in the big game that year. I truly have no idea whether we won or lost but I know the other team’s coach was a raving lunatic that scared the heck out of me. Us? We had cheap, off brand soda and a smiling coach on our sideline. My dad was at that game. I know because he came down to the field smiling when it was over. I was drinking that cheap, off brand soda and he told me how proud he was to watch me play. We probably lost because I don’t remember a trophy but, in retrospect, we definitely won.
That was almost 40 years ago and society has changed in many ways. There is a much bigger emphasis on winning today than there was all those years ago. We are quick to look for the best teams for our kids to play on. We sometimes pay crazy fees for the privilege of participating. Coaches are selecting kids based on current talent in kindergarten and first grade in an effort to put together a winning team. Potential talent is overlooked, for the most part, because we want to win now. This feels like a mistake to me and doesn’t appear to translate into championships at the High School level.
Some young kids have “it” and are identified as early as kindergarten as athletes. They work hard. They put their head down and do the work. They have more coordination, drive and focus than other kids their age. To pretend like they will be the only ones that stand a chance of success later would be very narrow minded and naive. Many kids are overlooked at a young age because they are clumsy, lack focus, aren’t aggressive or confident enough and are encouraged to find something else they have a talent for. Many of these kids grow, mature and find confidence later in life but have already been written off as not having talent. It has been reported that 7 out of 10 kids choose to quit sports all together by the age of 13. Some of this can be attributed to poor leadership, pressure from parents and burn out. Of course, some probably just realize they don’t like whatever sports they are playing but my guess is those numbers are much lower. Talent selection based on current ability over potential future talent by coaches is a driving force in many cases.
Does this mean that private coaching or competitive traveling teams are bad? Nope. Absolutely not. They are very much worthwhile if the expectation is to have fun, become better, learn the proper techniques of the game AND the kid wants to play. If the expectation is just to win or get a jump start on that college scholarship or the pros then it may be more harmful than good. Good examples of character, learning the fundamentals, teamwork and sportsmanship are great lessons to learn at a young age. An unrealistic expectation to always be the best or win every game isn’t going to do the kids any favors. Should these teams include everybody just because they want to play? Probably not in most cases. That’s up to the coach, the sponsor and the parents. It’s an argument for the benefits of expanding the perspectives and looking long term instead of short term with these very young ages.
I have heard it said many, many times over the past few years that if kids don’t win they will lose confidence and eventually quit playing sports. I don’t think that’s all together true. Dodging the better teams to pad the stats and ensure victory is a great way to build short term confidence. It also sets up unrealistic expectations for the future and can ruin any chance of overall team success at the next level. Sure, at some point, losing every time will get old but there is a major tipping point before that happens. That tipping point has nothing to do with the kids, the game or the level of competition. It has everything to do with attitude. The attitude of the kids when they decide to weigh success or failure by a scoreboard is guided, for the most part, by the adults around them. Parents fighting with each other at a football game, yelling at the ump in a baseball game, coaching their kids from the sidelines and bleachers, pointing out every flaw on the ride home from the game, the look or sounds of pure disappointment on a bad play and a crazy obsession with winning are great ways to leave a kid with the impression that life is all about winning.
It’s okay for kids to have fun. It’s okay for them to smile. That’s why they play. Because it’s fun. And a game. It’s not a job and, most likely, never will be. They should never cry over a loss or a bad play. What’s the point in that? Passion for the game? Really? That brings up an entire subject about how unhealthy it is to steer and direct little kids to find their passion. Maybe we could give them a few years and more experience before they have to make that tough choice. My feeling is that passion is a great cover up word for poor sport or feeling they let mom, dad or the coach down. Maybe not. Could be genuine passion. I feel less confident in that assessment than I do with this one —> Coaches that “motivate” kids by yelling and threatening to bench them for making a mistake aren’t doing much for confidence or future psychological happiness. It doesn’t motivate the kids to do better. It humiliates, scares and makes them play worse. They know that even if the team wins the coach will still point out their mistakes in front of the team.
It is a competitive world. That’s something I hear a lot. There is truth in that statement. Learning how to compete and navigate through life is important.  Losing is a part of life. Most successful adults have lost, failed or come up short several times before it all works out. Why? Because they have learned that it’s okay to take shots even when they don’t have all the tools in place or the odds are stacked against them. They understand that winning is great but real experience and skill is learned in the losses. They can enjoy the journey without pressure because there is no expectation to always win. The risk is the reward. The lessons learned in the early years – play hard, have fun and do your best – carry over into adulthood. Trophies from grade school don’t mean much if they can’t cope with adversity later in life. When adults, coaches and parents lose the true focus of youth sports they are paving the road for disappointment and failure.
Wins and losses are not always measured on a scoreboard. Am I perfect? Nope. Not by a long shot. I have had moments when I allowed myself to be sucked into acting like a fool on the sidelines, yelling directly at kids instead of coaching them and pretending a dumb game was the most important thing in life. I have used those experiences as lessons for what I do not want to become. They serve to remind that the words I choose to use with kids has an impact on them and will carry a lot of weight over the years. They may forget my name as the years go by but hopefully they will remember the lessons. The important stuff like. Mistakes are okay, even expected, because nobody is perfect. We practice to get better. We don’t always win but we always play to win. Good sportsmanship is just as important during or after a win as it is in a loss. It’s a game so smile and have fun. A championship trophy at this level will not change their lives. They will do the exact same thing after the game if they lose – go home, eat ice cream, watch TV and be a kid.
All of this probably makes you think I am just not a competitive person. That my personality doesn’t jive with the reality that it takes hard work and desire to succeed. That’s not exactly true. I am the most competitive person I know. I despise losing. I don’t want participation medals for everybody. I want to keep score. There should be winners and losers in every game. When I set a goal for myself there is no thought of failure. As a kid, I played to win. As a Marine, I competed to be the best. In college, I worked my butt off to graduate summa cum laude. As an adult, I have worked hard in my job to rise through the ranks. In recent years, I have raced everything from 5k’s to 100 mile trail races with the intention of competing  for the podium. Nobody plans to lose but… it happens. When it does there is no crying, throwing a fit or a desire to quit and find something else I might be good at – just a note to myself to work harder if I want to win. Even when I have won there is a note to myself to work harder and do better. The trophies and medals still don’t mean much. They are just things collected along the way. The friendships, laughs, highs and lows during the hard miles are what keeps it fun. And FUN is what keeps me going back.
If this felt like a lecture to you – it probably was. Relax. It’s just a game.
If this felt like common sense to you – that’s because it is.  Good for you.
Play Hard. Have Fun. Do Your Best.

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