A sophomore basketball player was cut from the team. She had always been told she was good, and being on the team was an important part of her identity.
A junior soccer player sat on the sidelines all season long. Even though everyone said he was just as good as the others, the coach clearly did not agree.
A senior runner who was breaking records on the track last year couldn’t win a race. The look of disappointment on the faces of her teammates, coaches and parents was hard to take.
Facing adversity in youth sports is impossible to avoid. As in life in general, there will always be highs and lows in sports. Some challenges are more difficult to overcome than others. A losing season, for example, might not be as difficult as something more individual.
My high school athlete does jumps in track and field and has witnessed adversity up close and personally.
Another jumper on another team had beamed when she got her personal best earlier in the season. On the day of the state championship, she couldn’t get over a lesser height, failing on each of her three allotted attempts. In between jumps, she wept openly. When she was finally out and the bar was raised to continue the competition, she cried hysterically until she was red in the face. Meanwhile, the girls competing couldn’t help but be distracted. Those who hadn’t jumped as well as she had appeared annoyed at her display.
All season, my daughter had watched a friend and teammate struggle. This girl had an amazing season last year and had landed a scholarship to a Division I university. This season, however, she was jumping several feet below her best. As we watched her struggle at each meet, she remained stoic on the field. She mustered the inner strength to cheer for her friends and her competitors. She remained on the field after she was out, helping other athletes and putting her pain aside.
My daughter was tested twice this year. First, when she went into a rut and couldn’t do as well as she had in the past. After several difficult meets, she failed to stay positive on the field after doing poorly once again. She let her disappointment show. There was a scowl on her face, along with a couple of tears. Afterwards, her coach had a talk with her about mental toughness and about being a good teammate.
She went on to have a great season, beating her former personal best three times. She medaled at states and was set to go to nationals for the first time. Training a week prior, she landed a jump wrong and was injured for the first time. X-rays, an MRI and several opinions later, she understood that nationals was no longer a possibility. Even worse, the long-term prognosis was unclear. The sport around which she had forged her identity, the one that would get her into the college of her choice, was no longer a sure thing. Her dream of competing at the collegiate level, of being part of an elite team, was in jeopardy.
Adding insult to injury, it was finals week at her high school. In physical pain and emotionally fragile, she navigated the long halls of her school on crutches. Disappointment and fear permeated her every moment.
When the doctor told her she wouldn’t be able to compete at nationals, the look of disappointment on her face was difficult to watch. I told her we could go anyway if she wanted. The anticipation of making the trip to North Carolina had been thrilling. Just to be in the presence of so many great athletes and to stand on the field of the prestigious Aggie Stadium were things she had been eagerly anticipating.
So, we went. I wasn’t sure it was a good idea but she wanted to go, so I took her. As she navigated the busy stadium in a cast and on crutches, I couldn’t ignore the looks of pity from other athletes and parents. However, my daughter took joy in collecting her “swag,” the coveted New Balance Nationals backpack, customized with her last name. When it came time for her event, she went out on the field, officially scratched her name from the roster and settled on a bench while her teammates warmed up.
It turns out that at nationals, coaches are not allowed to stay on the field after warm-ups. The officials were kind enough to let my daughter stay, though. This gave her the opportunity to be useful to her teammates. In her event, having a knowledgeable bystander watch your steps is a crucial tool. When an athlete misses a jump, the information gathered enables them to make adjustments that can lead to success. While her coach yelled directions to her teammates from the stands, my daughter was able to watch steps and give guidance. She high-fived and cheered for those who did well, and opened her arms to hug those who did not. I could see her excitement when she encountered other athletes she has met over the years, young men and women from all over the country.
She joined me in the stands to watch other events after hers was over. It was clear from the joyful chatter with athletes, parents and coaches, she was happy to be there. When her coach wrote a blog post about all of the athletes’ successes at nationals, he included thanks to my daughter for helping to coach and support the team.
Back at home, she jumped into physical therapy with gusto. A great prognosis for full healing and a return to her sport became clear. Through the ordeal — the physical pain, the stress of finals, the disappointment, and the uncertainty about her future — she was able to muster the strength and positivity to persevere. It has been said that champions don’t show themselves until they are challenged, that it’s easy to have a winning attitude when things are going your way, but strength of character is developed through adversity.
As parents, we all want our kids to win and for things to go smoothly for them. But we know that life beyond school sports is far from easy. Challenges in the form of injury, performance and negative coaching are all opportunities for growth. Most of our children will not play sports professionally. The goal of youth sports shouldn’t be just to win, although that feels great and is worth the effort. The true goal, though, is to develop young athletes into resilient, mentally strong adults who are able to stay positive when they hit those inevitable bumps in the road. Sports offer opportunities to develop coping skills in extremely frustrating situations. Young athletes learn how to handle disappointment, and that perseverance and having a positive outlook are tools to overcoming adversity. In sports and in life, the joy of overcoming a challenge is worth the effort.