The Power of Youth Sports

By Brad McEwen

It was tough to watch.

Down three with roughly a minute left in a tightly contested game, Milla gamely jumped the passing lane, just barely tipping the ball into the open court to speed down the court for a breakaway layup.

Not the best ball-handler on her squad, but certainly no slouch either, the long-legged 11 year-old navigated the court beautifully, easily outpacing a pursuing defender as she crossed half court, the three point line and then the charity stripe. But alas, as she gathered herself for the layup that would pull her team within a point, the ball barely grazed her knee before slipping off her fingertips and out of bounds.

She gamely shrugged off the turnover and readied herself on defense, but her dad could tell she was pretty shaken.

Ultimately the team never made up that three point deficit—after numerous 4th, 5th, and 6th graders also missed a few point blank shots directly under the basket (as players that age often do)—and once again had to endure the sting of defeat.

Always gracious, when the buzzer sounded Milla joined her teammates to dutifully congratulate their opponents on a hard-fought victory, but the hurt written across her face as we hopped in the car to head home was undeniable.

Anyone who’s spent time around my daughter is well-aware that she’s not overly shy and certainly has never been accused of being quiet, so her silence in the backseat was deafening. I understood full well what it meant.

The day’s loss was crushing to be sure. And not just because it marked the team’s third straight “L,” despite the girls playing well in all three contests and only falling by a combined 5 points.

But Milla wasn’t thinking about those losses, or the five shots collectively missed from less than two feet by her teammates in the waning seconds of the game.

No, what she was replaying in her mind was that missed layup—the squandered opportunity that could have put her team in a position to grab its first win of the season.

She didn’t consider the shots she blocked, the steals she came up with, the rebounds she pulled down or the outlet passes that led to teammates’ baskets. All that mattered was that one error at a critical moment.

That mistake hurt. And I felt that twinge too when I saw that mix of anguish and anger in her big brown eyes.

As a sports fan, I’ve most assuredly had my fair share of hands raised in disgust and disappointment moments—a certain overtime pass to a wide open Bama receiver comes to mind—and as a competitor I’ve had plenty of anxious moments in my life—first tee jitters with a new foursome, quivery knees as I stepped up to face a particularly hard-throwing 12 year-old back in my little league days, a line of cold sweat trickling down my back at the free throw line.

I’ve endured failures—some I’d categorize as colossal—and I’ve literally weathered hundreds of blows and bodily injury from various combatants. But all of that pales in comparison to the slowing of time, the knotted up stomach, the nail-biting intensity and the onslaught of emotion that comes every time Bear steps to the plate or Milla trots out to the field in the heat of battle.

As a parent there’s simply nothing more difficult than watching your child fight back tears as they avoid eye contact on their way back to the bench after a strikeout, or seeing the specter of uncertainty as they prepare to compete in the crucible that is youth sports.

Only two days removed from Milla’s struggle on the hardwood, I was once more put through the proverbial grinder as Bear took part in the annual ritual of little league baseball tryouts—perhaps the pinnacle of parental agony as you have to watch helplessly as your child is literally judged right in front of your eyes.

As I’ve done now too many times to count, I tried to mitigate the constant fluttering in my stomach as I waited for Bear’s turn under the spotlight by pacing around, watching the players in the other age groups, chatting with other nervous parents. But it was to no avail.

That flipping and flopping deep in my soul only subsided after the show was over and Bear had dutifully given what he could to those coaches charged with assembling peewee baseball teams (no enviable task for those fine gentlemen to be sure).

But as tough as it was to watch him perform, I was quickly reminded that baseball tryouts aren’t nearly as bad for most of the players as they are for their parents.

Seeing that happy-go-lucky smile as he gathered up his gear and high-fived his buddies I was instantly reminded of the hours upon hours of pure joy both Bear and Milla have derived out of their brief time playing organized baseball, softball, basketball and even soccer.

And as gut-wrenching as it can be to watch them launch an air ball or have a grounder slip between their legs, there’s simply nothing as thrilling and pride-filling as being there to see the three-run double in the bottom of the 9th or the point blank put-back as the half expires.

I don’t know that many things in my life, aside from the days they arrived in the world, were as wonderful as watching Bear’s 8U travel team battle back in a tough championship game—thanks in part to his timely RBI single—to capture the victory and take home the gold tournament ring, or Milla’s 10U softball team storm back from 6 down—bolstered by her two-run double—in the final at-bat to capture a huge win in their second contest of a new season (her first playing softball).

For all the heartache that accompanies the failures they endure as they learn and compete, there’s also the unfathomable joy I get when they succeed—and not just the success of a made basket, a caught pop-fly or a big win.

There’s something incredibly powerful about seeing them fall down and then pick themselves up, dust themselves off and give it another try.

Sure Milla was downright disgusted with herself for missing that layup and her anger was palpable. But it was unbelievably inspiring that the first thing she did when we got back home was grab her basketball and start practicing layups in the driveway.

And just minutes after bobbling one of his grounders and dropping one of the pop-flies he was given during tryouts, Bear was begging me to head over to one of the empty fields and throw him some more before heading home for dinner.

There are dozens of things that make youth sports painful and ugly—witnessing your children make mistakes or suffering the scores of moms and dads that take things way too seriously and put undue pressure on their little ones to be perfect every time—but there countless more positives.

I can think of no better place for a child to learn how to socialize and work with others as part of a team. Watching the girls giggling amongst themselves while waiting on the bench or the boys goofing around and making up silly chants from the dugout, is as entertaining as the games themselves.

Youth sports, when done right, teaches kids about discipline, how to take orders, how to communicate and how to handle stress. And it prepares them for types of challenges they’ll continue to face throughout their lives.

I, like many of my parenting peers, see youth sports as perhaps the best training ground for life itself.

It’s cliché to say, but life can be hard. For every success we enjoy there’s likely plenty of failures we’ve endured. Too many times to count, I’ve worked hard, given my best and still not passed a certain exam, landed the big sale, or earned the coveted promotion.

But there’s one important thing I’ve learned, going all the way back to my tee-ball days: we can either let those defeats stop us from moving forward and halt our growth, or we can grab our ball, head out to the driveway and start working on our shot. In my mind we can always strive for excellence and look to improve.

There’s just something truly magical about youth sports and I’m reminded of it every winter as the chill drifts away and basketball season once again gives way to afternoons on the diamond.

Sure there’s plenty of anxiety watching helplessly from the sideline—and it can be a real booger trying to shepherd two kids to their various activities while still maintaining a functioning household—but I wouldn’t trade those hectic afternoons or Saturdays spent sitting on rock hard bleachers for anything.

Game on.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen