My fifth grader recently finished up her first season of basketball. She’s been learning the basics, since third grade and attended Coach Huger’s Basketball Camp last summer and fall. This, though, was her first year where she got to play actual games and not just a scrimmage at the half time of someone else’s game. She spent countless hours in the driveway shooting hoops and dribbling. She loves to play. Nevermind she’s this little, waif of a girl, she is tenacious and not afraid to shoot. She was ready to play.
Her coaches were awesome and gave all the girls on her team equal opportunity to play in games, even when they weren’t winning, which was most of the time. In fact, her team didn’t win one game all season. They lost a lot and by a lot. However, she didn’t let that get her down. She kept practicing and pushing forward. She and her team made strides and improved immensely as the season progressed. By her last game they only lost by single digits. It didn’t matter to her that she lost (OK maybe it did a little as who doesn’t like to win once in a while?), only that she played her best. She learned and she grew as a player. I am proud of her. Not because she scored baskets or got to be the point guard once in a while, but because she is a team player and worked hard. At basketball camp she was on the team that won the end-of-camp tournament both times. However, the best sport trophy was the one that made me proudest.
Juxtapose her experience with that of my oldest daughter. She played her last game as a ninth grader after spending countless hours on the bench. From seventh grade through ninety grade her playing time in games wasn’t more than an entire game total. I am just as proud of her as my younger daughter though. I cheered even louder and encouraged her even more for those last few minutes or seconds when she got in to the game. I don’t think I could have been more excited when she was finally in a position to shoot, was passed the ball and scored a basket in the very last game she played. My heart broke for her on those games when she didn’t get to play at all. I think my heart ached for her more than her own disappointment in not getting to play at all. And why didn’t she get to play, I thought to myself after every game when she didn’t even when her team was beating their opponent by more than 20 points. She worked hard and she practiced hard.
Our school district has a strict policy about asking the coaches about “playing time,” so I kept my mouth shut as my disagreement in coaching philosophy grew. I watched as her love for playing the sport and being on a team dwindled to nothing. She has no desire to play any more. She, too was a small side. However, she was more timid than her sister. As parent I understand that not everyone can be a starter or the MVP of the team. What I fail to understand though why all players aren’t developed as opposed to only those that showed some natural ability. In the beginning she went to basketball camp and practiced in the driveway; however, her enthusiasm diminished as even though her skills improved, her playing time never did.
As I was prohibited from asking the coaches about playing time, I encouraged her to talk to them to find out what she could do to improve and see more time in the game. After finally finding the courage to ask, she came home more discouraged than ever when she was given a vague answer of “improved basketball skills and knowledge of the game overall.” What??? The lowest day came when the coaches dismissed her and a couple other players from practice early to work with the starters as they weren’t “needed.” I only heard her side so I don’t know if that was meant, but it’s what she heard.
I was frustrated to learn later that she and several other players not deemed “good enough,” sat against the wall during many practices and watched the starters scrimmage and learn the plays. She wasn’t even given the opportunity to learn the plays during practice. Is it any wonder that when put in the game she had no confidence. If she made any small error I could see her eyes travel immediately towards the coach’s, waiting to be pulled out. Sure enough as if it were a self-fulfilling prophecy, she’d be back on the bench in one or two plays. Even the very best players make mistakes in games, they: foul, travel, miss shots and rebounds, throw bad passes, and step out-of-bounds. The difference is they have the confidence to know they won’t be pulled from the game if they aren’t perfect. Mistakes are part of the game. A field goal percentage of 50% and above is considered good. That means most players miss at least one basket for everyone they make! You have to shoot to score. If a player is not given the opportunity to play during practice or allowed to gain experience in actual games (in middle school!), how will they ever grow into the players they could be? Is it politics? Coach ego? The drive to win? I’m not sure, but it sure sucks. I can understand the “must win” mentality at the college level and obviously at the pro-level as those coaches are being paid mega-bucks to win.
As far as I can tell even the starters of our winningest team didn’t go out to play Big 10 basketball or even little 10 basketball. Our stands are not crawling with scouts. Would allowing all team members the space and time to make mistakes and become better players in lieu of a perfect record be that horrible? I worry that this same fate is in store for my younger daughter as she moves into junior high in the coming years. I want her to learn that hard work does pay off in the end. I want her to know that winning isn’t the end all and be all. I want her to have a positive experience and good memories. I have fond memories of my time as a basketball player. Granted I played in our local CYO league, but I got to play the game I loved without worrying about being judged or punished for not being perfect. I may not have scored every game and our team definitely didn’t win every game, but when I look back on that time I remember the laughter, the camaraderie and the excitement of playing on a team and being part of something bigger than myself. That is what I want for my daughters.
I truly don’t get the need to win at all costs. Why is winning more important than encouraging and developing all our young athletes into becoming better players? I don’t think we need to give our kids participation awards to make them feel good, but I do think we need to give them all the opportunity to be better. Just think how good Michael Jordan’s high school team might have been had his coach spent time developing him instead of cutting him from the team. Luckily for basketball fans (especially those in Chicago), Jordan didn’t get discouraged. He continued practicing and practicing to improve his skills instead of giving up and believing he’d never be good enough.
Life is unfair. I get that. It’s a lesson we all learn sooner or later. However, I’d rather it be later than sooner. What do you think? Do we place too much emphasis on winning in middle school/high school sports?