Many people love the sports they choose because of the experiences it brings them. To finish a marathon, half marathon or even a 5K can be a life-changing event. To ride a Century, hammer through a criterium or put your guts on the line in an all-out time trial all test your spirit.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with having competitive goals. It gives our lives structure and at times makes it possible to get through other challenges in life.
Yet from the time we make our first running commitments or ride that hill we did not think possible, we are indeed giving up other life experiences as a matter of choice.
Of course it is true you can’t do everything. We don’t live on multiple planes where we can shift from one moment in time to another, or from one place or experience. Our lives are finite and to the best of our known mental abilities, set on a course of linear time.
That’s what makes racing so beautiful, however. Even training runs and rides can be transcendent. That is the allure of the sport.
But there are times when we can and should pull back from our pursuit of personal running and riding goals. There is more to life than these two things, after all.
When you are a young athlete sports can dominate your entire existence. This is especially true now that sports training is often a year-round activity. That’s true whether you play volleyball or soccer, baseball or gymnastics, running or riding. That big word “commitment” means so much to young athletes that their lives and youth sometimes slip away under a ceiling of perpetual playing of sports.
During spring break in 1973 I stayed home to train for the upcoming indoor conference meet, in which I placed 3rd or something in the mile. It didn’t mean that much in the long term scheme of things. In fact very few competitive efforts ever do, mean much.
What I gave up to do that mile was a river rafting trip down the Rio Grande in Texas. The school wrestling coach was taking a group of kids on the trip and I really wanted to go. But I was also scared of several things.
First, that I wasn’t going to be able to represent the team in track. My coach knew my interest in the possible trip. He had known me since I was 12 years old and playing baseball on the team he coached in Elburn, Illinois. But the momentum of high school sports even in those days was fierce and all-consuming. So I skipped the trip. Ran the race. And missed out on what might have been the experience of a lifetime.
Yet secretly I was also a little relieved. The other kids going on the rafting trip were not in my peer group. A couple were known “druggies” and I’d been taught to stay away from them and all others like them. Later in life I got to know them well. They were funny. Smart. Brilliant even. And not into conformity.
Breakfast Club Syndrome
Yes, it was a Breakfast Club judgement on my part. And rafting down that river with a more interesting set of people would have been life-changing in a good way. I have no doubt about that.
My worldview even at that time was one of absolute tolerance and acceptance. In truth my friendships crossed all sorts of barriers. I was in Poetry Club, for example, not exactly the bastion of male machismo. But it was satisfying. The people were quirky, fun and odd all at once. And I belonged. To something other than a sports team. In college that worldview expanded even more. Even though our track and cross country teams were great sources of friendship, I was an art major with friends in theater, music and other pursuits. Gay friends. Black friends. Interesting people who did not have the habit of making fun of others in some sort of competitive defense of character and self.
It’s not that I regret sports experiences, but it would have been interesting to attend college, for example without the year-round training, the 100 mile weeks and the domination of time required by college sports.
Perhaps I might actually have had time to figure out that I wanted to be a writer as well as a painter, and the whole career track might have changed. More accurately, I might have pursued the thing I love as much as running and riding, and that is writing.
That revelation came along years later after literally thousands of published articles, and now this blog. I’m a writer now by profession.
“I though you were a jock”
Yet the pressures to conform were also great. Just after college when I was working as a graphic designer in marketing for an investment firm, I bumped into a high school friend at a local bar. She asked what I was doing for work and I told her. She got a quizzical look on her face and said, “You’re an artist? I thought you were a jock.”
I told her, “I didn’t think the two were mutually exclusive.”
But in a way, she was right. Our athletic lives can take over our personalities. And when my truly competitive career was over around 28 years old, I made the conscious decision to compete when I felt like it, not when it was expected or obligatory.
We need, as a society, to change what we’re doing to young people absorbed in competitive sports. There should be even more forced breaks than there are currently. College coaches need to stop requiring kids to participate in every tournament just so they can protect their own jobs. High school coaches should look at the whole person when helping students make choices about their life experiences. Winning at anything in high school is fun, but it shouldn’t be everything. It should define completely who a person is, or will become.
Hope of today
That is not to say there are not plenty of well-rounded athletes. Kids today are better at broadening their friendships than used to be the case. I have tremendous respect for the young people I meet. The confirmation class I teach with middle-schoolers is often full of amazing discussions. The one young woman who wears a soccer sweatshirt each week is also an actress in drama and a musician who takes equal pride in all those things. My own nieces are exceptional volleyball players who dedicate lots of time to their sport, but they are also exceptional people with other interests. Another niece is an exceptional ballet dancer, built for her pursuit. She’d also make a good high jumper if she tried, with all those muscles. But art is just as valid as sport, you see. I love them all. May they achieve whatever heights they pursue.
It’s just wise to keep that commitment going, or build that commitment in your young children as they grow. Life has a lot to offer beyond sports. Let it be so.
My own son came to me early in his high school career and said, “Dad, when I’m doing track I’m 25% happy. But when I’m doing drama I’m 100% happy.” I responded that the choice was made. He choose to try track and learned that he wanted to direct and act in plays instead. Now he’s training in Improv in New York City while working full time for the University of Chicago. My daughter who played soccer through middle school took up photography, earned a degree in that field and is now graduating in marketing communications with an internship she loves. She’s also a major hockey fan, an interest I never thought she’d take up. And she loves the fights. Like her dad, she’s got a bit of “mink” in her, the term my brothers once used to describe my fighting spirit in sports.
Let that impressionable kid go on a wild rafting trip down the Rio Grande. A week’s training is just not that important. If the kid gets sunburned, tired, stoned, laid and amazed by canyon walls and birds that sing at night, then so be it. You’ll likely find the limits of what they can accomplish on the sports field have been lifted. They’ve seen some life. And that can be the most important competitive advantage of all.