My 12-year-old daughter recently finished her 3rd and final season of basketball. The league she played for—Upward Sports—was a non-competitive, all-inclusive Christian team. I originally encouraged her to play basketball for all the typical reasons: 1) It looked like good exercise; 2) Team dynamics are important for everyone; 3) Learning something new would probably be fun; and 4) She would make new friends. My only real concern was that she had asthma and the running could wipe her out. Her only concern was that she would be the worst player on the team.
So when I talked to her coach before her first practice as a 10-year-old, I told him that she was worried because her tryout assessment was horrible in her eyes. But the great thing about Upward is that teams are made up in such a way that there is balance—an equal amount of more-experienced girls mixed with less-experienced girls. And the main goal, believe it or not, is growth in each player, not winning the game.
Her first season went well. My daughter was encouraged by all of the players on her team, and her coaches poured life and inspiration into her and the other players. When my daughter made her first basket during a game, I nearly burst with pride. And when the season concluded, there was no doubt she’d try out again the following year.
The next season rolled around, tryouts went a little better, and her new coach was someone she already knew. Her familiarity with the drills and the rules of the game made the learning curve a little less steep. My daughter blossomed and became more confident. Her team won every game but one—and that one was a tie. Basketball was fun!
This last season was the best season of all—and it was the season where I stopped keeping score of the baskets the girls made and started keeping score of the values being taught. As a sixth-grader, this was my daughter’s final season, and while it would have been nice to go out as a winning team, I had to rethink what it really means to be a winner.
Is a winner the girl who makes the most baskets and scores the most points for her team? Yes, of course! That’s how the game is won. But isn’t a winner also the girl who hands off the ball to the girl who’s never made a basket so that she’ll at least have the chance to try? Isn’t a winner someone who comes up with a code phrase for the team to use to remind the newest player on the team which direction to run? Isn’t a winner someone who tells the opposing team’s girls “good job” whether or not they won the game?
I’m not saying that competition is bad. In fact, I think competition encourages positive growth for the most part. I am saying that if your child is part of a team that doesn’t win every game, there are lessons to be learned besides “Practice harder!” and “Let’s go crush the other team.” Let’s face it. Not everyone is destined to be an athletic superstar, but if sports teams are structured properly, the life skills the players learn can be just as important.
From the time children are very little we teach them how to play nicely and get along, but sometimes in athletics we push those ideas aside and ask them to get tough—to win! Parents and coaches play a big part in this “winning” mentality. What would it look like if we took a step back and really encouraged the kids, no matter what the scoreboard said?
I was really inspired by my daughter’s maturity when after her next-to-the-last game she told me why she didn’t take every shot that night. She said, “I probably could’ve made those baskets if I’d shot the ball, but the season’s almost over. I’ve already made a lot of baskets in practice and in the games. Tina’s only got one more practice and one more game to score, so I kept passing it to her. I think if she makes a shot, she’ll come back next year.”
Well, that summed it up for me. This was a winning year, indeed!