— “Sports do not build character. They reveal it” — Heywood Broun
One recent afternoon my in-laws — that is mother and father — told Kim about a trip out to a local restaurant where a rather large group of high school boys were eating.
He told us about how when the senior couple entered, there was a long line was waiting to order. The boys, without any prodding from an adult, simply stepped back and told them to go to the head of the line to order. When seated, one young man was leaning on the back of the seat of their table and a fellow teammate told him to move so they could eat unabated.
My father-in-law simply raved about how all of the young men in such a large group behaved around and toward them. Each one of them they encountered was polite and mannerly and most of all respectful.
I know one thing for sure about the football coaching staff at Jeffersonville High School this season. More is being demanded of these young men than learning the Xs and Os.
I have participated in and listened to many debates about the value of sports in leading to life’s success. My own experience is simply that I have known as many life’s losers as winners from the world of sports. My own philosophy mirrors that more of John Wooden in that a coach teaches as much about manners and life as he does about winning and losing.
Some coaches that have had success on the field and in the gym have bred some real troubled stars once they left the playing field. Others have had more modest success and turned out lots of very successful people away from the sports arena. According to one website I researched, in the United States you have approximately a .000565 percent chance of being a professional athlete.
The lessons I learned from most of my coaches in sports that molded my life were ones that I didn’t realize I was being taught at the time. Things like self-respect, overcoming my own self-imposed limitations, setting goals and in general what was acceptable behavior.
Every coach I ever had stressed playing hard and striving to win. The really good ones taught me what winning meant. In more than one locker room, a coach who was probably as disappointed at losing a contest as I was had the maturity and coaching intelligence to tell a bunch of brokenhearted young men that we had laid it all out on the field and simply lost to a better team.
Winning was simply the fact of doing the best that you could do. There was always another game.
To be honest, on more than one occasion a good coach let us know we had not laid it all out on the field and could of or should have won. In life, it’s real important to know the difference of when you tried your best and when you half-heatedly gave an effort.
The thing I miss most about physically competitive sports now as an old broken-down jock is simply being in the game. I was a guy who loved practice as much as the game. For me, it meant stretching to your limits where a mistake had no real negative consequence. I rarely cared if I was way ahead or way behind on the scoreboard — I loved to run, hustle and play. I loved to be in shape and competitive at any level.
The one lesson that I am still trying to learn is how to be a good sport when losing. On more than one occasion, I was disciplined for being a bad sport. I am better, but for me it is an ongoing concern.
I think for children, often it’s the adults who are the real problem in sports today. The one really great memory I have is when as kids in Oak Park we simply played sandlot ball for hours upon end in the summer with no adults in sight. We worked out the disagreements and somehow managed to get through countless games with no adult interference. I guess a good title for a book about us would have been more like “The Lord of The Pop Flies.”
I do hope that kids get more of the real lessons of life and really understand that the privilege and joy of competing is in itself a victory. I know that adult fans rarely ever understand that.
In life, victories are harder to quantify, but the only possible way to succeed is simply to go to work and play hard each and every day. It’s pretty rare to hear applause at the office, and tomorrow will start with a new scoreboard.