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Kids' Sports: A Training Ground for Life

. . . and for Parents


Douglas B. McKeag, MD, guest editor

I'm a dad and proud of it! I'll defend my kids against all comers—opponents, coaches, refs, and sometimes even teammates. Anything wrong with that?

I've been an athlete, coach, referee, opponent, and teammate myself. But none of those roles compares with being a parent. I would much rather tend to a downed athlete in front of 110,000 spectators than watch my daughter go in for a lay-up in basketball and get hammered by an opponent with nary a peep from the ref's whistle.

Sometimes it's hard to explain the injustices in sports. "Why am I not starting, Dad? I'm better than Sally!" "Why can't I play better?!" "Why does the coach play the scrubs, so we end up losing?" "Why does the coach shout at me so much?"

You think explaining the birds and the bees is hard? Give me sex education any time!

But for all the minor injustices, sports provides many valuable situations that lead to hard choices. It's a time to practice decision-making without the serious ramifications of choices we make later in life. Where else do you find daily challenges confronting children that concern ethics and values, leadership and character issues, failure and success, and yet take place in the protected arena of sports?

Do I pass the ball or shoot? Do I assume a nonleadership role on my team? Do I cheat with performance-enhancing drugs? Should I play dirty to win? Do I accept criticism and responsibility when things go wrong? You know, the more I think about it, I know a whole lot more adults who could use a refresher course on these issues.

Our children learn from experiencing all of the above in sports. Where else can they witness the passion, irrationality, misplaced priorities, and mistakes made by adults in such a safe environment? It's something no amount of computer time can replace.

The arbitrariness of sports proclaims that there must be a winner and a loser, period. Fair or unfair, that's it. Such black-and-white thinking in our gray world is unique, and somewhat comforting. Majority doesn't rule here; coaches stand as some of our society's few remaining autocrats. Even then, they pale in comparison to the role of the officials—who are the ultimate autocrats.

Is this system wrong? Actually, it's refreshingly right. You can experience much of what life has to offer, good and bad, in an environment with steadfast rules that allows you to fail only transiently and experiment with your ability to handle it. Perhaps at no other time in life is anything so simple: fair or foul, in or out. Instant feedback, both negative or positive, with no questions asked. You screw up, you pay. And at the conclusion, you actually shake hands with your opponent, and say "Good game!"

Would that life be so straightforward.

But some people never learn that lesson. Most, thanks to sports, do learn it, and use it as a guide for life. Actually, that's not a bad torch to carry when you walk through the dark unknown of the future.

Yes, I'm a dad. While I watch my kids practice situational ethics, I still don't know why Kelly's coach won't play her more, why Heather has to practice so much, or why the ref couldn't see the awful foul that jerk kid hung on Ian.

But then, I remember that that jerk has parents, too, pulling for him, and they probably saw an offensive charge on Ian. And I remember that being a parent has to be the toughest job of all.

Douglas B. McKeag, MD
Editorial Board Member