Sports: They Build Better People

VANCOUVER, BC - JULY 05:  Alex Morgan #13, Lauren Holiday #12, Abby Wambach #20 and Whitney Engen #6 of the United States of America hold the World Cup Trophy after their 5-2 win over Japan in the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015 Final at BC Place Stadium on July 5, 2015 in Vancouver, Canada.  (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)

Members of the #USWNT holding the World Cup Trophy after their 5-2 victory over Japan.

A friend on Facebook posted this article last week, “The Single Most Important Lesson We Need to Learn from the US Women’s World Cup Victory.

Single Most? Maybe. Important? Hell, yes.

Why should kids be given the opportunity to play sports, especially girls? The author writes:

[E]ncouraging your daughters to play sports does more than just fill a win-loss column; it can fundamentally transform the course of her life, her confidence, and her resilience long after she stops playing. …

They become part of something bigger than themselves, something bigger than a game, and the resulting confidence, camaraderie, and connections they build pay dividends long after they hang up their cleats or play their last minute. …

…playing sports gave me a lasting gift: to know what it’s like to give it all, to know how to lead, to know how to follow, and to know what it means to push yourself harder than you ever imagined possible.

Exactly.

The same applies to both boys and girls who seek to compete. But, I think there is a special opportunity to support female athletes in the sports they pursue.

I saw it first hand serving as an assistant swim coach in college, at the University of Mary Washington. It was Division III. No one was going to the Olympics, and few would even going to NCAA Nationals. But, damn did being on that team — like many others — have an impact on people.

The moments I remember most? It’s not an athlete that had an incredible race, who swam an amazing time, or buried a rival opponent in their wake (though those are fun!). It’s the moments when an athlete’s character was tested, and they showed up even better.

  • I remember sitting on the side of a pool deck on our annual training trip to Florida, talking to a young woman who was ready to quit. Not just the set, or the practice, or even the trip. She was ready to quite the sport. Right then. We talked for quite a while. She finished the set, the practice, the trip, and the season.
  • I remember coaching a young woman who had a rough freshman year. The transition to college didn’t go smoothly. Her training was rough. Her race times in season were off. She could have sandbagged it from there, but, she was a warrior and an emerging leader on the team.She kept at it. And became the only swimmer in conference history to win both Rookie of the Year and Conference Swimmer of the Year. She never lost a race at the conference championship meet during her four years at Mary Washington and is in the school’s Hall of Fame today. Those are really nice accomplishments, but I’ll always remember the look on her face on the pool deck after swimming a time that qualified her for her first collegiate national meet. A season’s worth of toil, pain, pride and accomplishment, all in a single snapshot.
  • I remember a meet against an out-of-conference rival that usually kicked our tails, Gettysburg College. They came into our pool and put their banner up our diving board. A slap in the face to a team already grinding through a rough stretch of training before the final taper leading up to conference championships.  I recall being rather animated in the pre-meet pep talk that day after seeing that. Hell, I still remember some of the things I said, word for word. The result: those men and women swam out of their minds. The women, who usually lost in a close contest, pummeled Gettysburg that year. The men, who usually were on the receiving end of a rough day, narrowly lost. And by narrowly, I mean there were three races where we were just out-touched by a split second. Had we won any one of the three, the men would have won the meet. The worst part: it was the same swimmer in each case getting out-touched at the end of an individual race or a relay. That was a brutal outing for him. We went out to dinner afterward and talked about the meet. He was a tough kid and I figured he would bounce back, but you never know. He later qualified for nationals and became an All-American. He’s also in the school’s Hall of Fame today too.

Where are those athletes, and others like them today? They’re usually successful professionals, and better people in life because the learned something in sports. All three of the athletes I described above have really cool professional careers today. Men or women, boy or girl, those are opportunities we should fight for them to have, so they can compete, learn, and grow.

Fight for them? Yes, fight.

Sometimes teams and sports are cut in the era of Title IX and revenue-rich football and basketball teams driving athletic department decisions. My own sport of swimming is particularly vulnerable to it because pools are a high capital cost with little revenue return. I’ll gladly fight for teams to remain so student-athletes can compete.

Sometimes, it isn’t about the team being available, it’s about the kid being given the chance to compete. To be supported by their family. Cheered on by their peers. That chance to compete and grow as part of a team is no small part of my son’s story, even as his sports career has likely come to an end before college begins. You have to give them that chance, then support them. That’s on all of us as parents, family members, school mates, and fans. The rewards are so very worth it.

If you follow me on social media it may be no surprise to see me cheerleading for amateur sports, especially for girls. They are some of the great character builders available to our young men and women today.

And sometimes, we get the added pleasure of seeing a group of them rise up, grow…and become World Champions. Making them the role models for the next generation of athletes who will be inspired by the US Women’s World Cup victory this year.

I can’t wait to see that next generation in action.

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