I love youth sports. I have 4 boys and they play them All. The. Time. For the most part, win or lose, it is something they enjoy and grow from. However, last night, it was ugly.
My son decided to start competition basketball very late in the game. He is on a team full of beginners and it has been a tough season without even one win. They play significantly more skilled and more experienced teams every single week and most of the time get absolutely slaughtered.
The silver lining is that they have a phenomenal coach who consistently teaches them fundamentals and patiently encourages and coaches them through each game. He doesn’t expect them to win, but he does expect them to improve, which they have done. Everyone has to start somewhere, right?
Last night we played, arguably, the best of the best in our league. As the opposing team walked in, their shortest player was the same size as our tallest, and they had at least three kids who had our boys by about 8 inches. Definitely a modern day David and Goliath moment. Our kids were intimidated from the start as they watched these giants warm up. The game started, and both sides played hard, but we were no match for them. At half they had outscored us by 30 points.
At the beginning of the third quarter, the boys on the other side were obviously not taking things too seriously anymore, laughing when they shot an air ball and joking around and giggling with their coaches on the bench. It was clear how they felt about playing a team like ours. To their credit, the boys were cool on the court, high-fiving our kids when they made a shot and smiling and conversing with them on the foul line.
And then, at the beginning of the fourth quarter, the coach waves a younger brother over to the bench. He looks about 5 or 6 years younger than our boys, and he gives him a jersey and tells him to suit up. The little kid excitedly puts on the oversized top while the entire bench laughs hysterically and encourages him while the game continues on the court. The younger brother goes to check in at the score table amid raucous laughter from the other side, and then everyone painfully realizes what is going on.
Our boys’ faces fall and their bodies deflate, all of a sudden aware that they are being mocked. That these coaches and fathers from a far superior team have found it necessary to put on a show at the expense of our players; to kick them when they are already down. For them, beating a team by 50 points isn’t quite enough, they must lord their superiority over the underdog until they have emotionally decimated these new players.
Our coach stops the game and discusses the move with the officials and scorekeepers, who should have known better. A few parents on ourside shout their opposition to what is going on and walk out. The mood in the gym goes from light-hearted on one side and embarrassed on the other to tense and uncomfortable for everyone as the younger brother is told to sit back down. No good person could have watched the scenario without feeling like something terribly wrong had just happened.
Our team signed up for a competitive basketball league and was prepared to be beat by as many points as the other team could score, but we were unprepared for the classless display of elementary behavior put on by men who should know better and be better.
But, even after all this, there is still a moment from last night that makes me smile. Through that thick air, our boys finished out the last 6 painful minutes. They hustled, kept their heads up, and completed the game the way they started, giving it everything they had.
This is why we play sports, because of moments like these. The winning is fun. The activity is necessary. The friendships are lasting, and developing talents and seeing physical growth and improvement is thrilling. But, in the end, it is about so much more.
It is about winning and losing with grace; about working hard, not being rewarded, and working hard anyway; about trying and failing; about going up against impossible odds; about banding together for something bigger than the individual; about getting back up when everything says you are defeated; about finishing what you started. Sports, when done well, can shape young people into a better version of themselves, and last night I was incredibly proud to be part of the losing team.
The opposing coaches certainly know how to teach basketball, but they fall seriously short when it comes to teaching character. And when all is said and done, what else really matters?