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Sports for Kids: Everybody Plays vs. Winning

kids basketball

My son E in a headlock from his pall B after their team won the game

Last week marked the last regular season basketball game of the year for my middle schooler E’s basketball team, and it was pretty special. Not only did E’s team win, they won in large part due to the points scored by E’s good friend W, who had barely gotten to play all season, but unleashed his inner Michael Jordan when the coach finally gave him a chance in that final game of the year.

W’s mom is a good friend of mine, dating back to the days when we were both pregnant with our boys at the same time,  and she was weepy with joy at that last game the other night, watching her son shoot basket after basket as the crowd cheered. But at the next-to-last-game, the one the night before, she was near tears for another reason: her son sat on the bench for every single second of the entire game, never getting a chance to play at all.  It was hard for her to watch, given that this has been the way W had spent almost every other game all season – patiently sitting on the bench while other boys were rotated in and out off the court until the final buzzer. She felt frustrated that W, who had worked hard all season, never missed practice, kept his grades up to the team standard and had basically done everything else right, had spent most of the season on the bench, quietly hoping for his moment to get in the game.

Finally, in that last game of the year, the coach sent W out onto the court. And just like some kind of inspirational ABC Afterschool Special, the boy who had never gotten to play very much at all for the entire season went out there and KICKED ASS.

He scored!

He scored again!

And again!

I was cheering like crazy, and also had tears in my eyes as I watched him lope up and down the court with a huge grin on his face, sneaking glances up at his family in the stands to see how proud they were.

It. Was. AWESOME.

(continued after the photos below…)

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Scenes from E’s final regular season basketball game of his whole middle school playing career.

nggallery id=’126918′

  • C and NC get a photo with their idol after the game 1 of 5
    C and NC get a photo with their idol after the game
    The girls are holding the flowers that each 8th grade player got before the game in recognition that this was the last regular season game of their middle school careers. Two players (E and B) let the little girls hold their flowers, which made C and NC giddy. The perspective in this photo makes E look HUUUUUGE (but he really isn't. At all.)
  • E gets a headlock from his pal B 2 of 5
    E gets a headlock from his pal B
    E remains the shortest kid on the team (something I suspect is about to change, given the size of his feet and the way his big brother suddenly shot up after middle school). But what E lacks in size, he makes up for in hustle and focus.
  • E on defense. 3 of 5
    E on defense.
  • Four year old C and NC watch in awe from the stands 4 of 5
    Four year old C and NC watch in awe from the stands
    C and NC loooooved getting to go watch E play. They screamed loudly at inappropriate moments, fawned over the middle school cheerleaders, and kept referring to "basketball" as "pass-the-ball," which I found quite adorable.
  • Middle school pep band 5 of 5
    Middle school pep band
    Paging Norman Rockwell...

 

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But as terrific as that final game was, I agree with W’s mom that it’s not right that her child only got to play a little bit for the entire season when he was doing everything he was supposed to do to earn that right.  As well as W played in that final game, he doesn’t yet have the hotshot, aggressive playing style of some of the other boys on the team, and those were the boys who got the most playtime – almost all of it, actually. And I think that sends the absolute wrong message to kids about sportsmanship and competition.

Now don’t get me wrong; I absolutely do believe that part of what kids learn in competitive sports is…how to be competitive. Winning is what we want to have happen when we assemble a group of kids and mold them into a real basketball, lacrosse, soccer or baseball team. And by middle school – which is how old these boys are – learning and executing the skills to actually win games should be a larger part of the goal of their sports participation than it was, say, back when E and W were 7 years old and were playing AYSO soccer, where the league’s mission explicitly includes the idea that every child gets to play, every single game.

I totally get that the boys are now in middle school, and middle school basketball is a feeder for highly competitive high school basketball, and for the boys who are very serious about making it to the next level – the prep level – playing well and playing on a winning team matter a great deal. And to some (not all) parents pacing the sidelines of these middle school basketball games muttering about the ref and yelling directives at their child on the court, or screaming incessantly from the stands, this is serious business for them as well.

But there has to be some balance. If a boy does what the coach asks of him all season long without complaint, he should get some chances to play – and not only once or twice in the whole season. To me, even those kids who may not yet be the hotshots they hope one day to become should be able to earn play time during games with their attitude, work ethic and commitment.

Given the varying opinions among parents on this issue, a middle school boys’ basketball coach clearly has a tough situation on his hands. He has to balance the fact that by middle school, team sports are  no longer a casual thing for many of his players (or the parents who have his home phone number and email address) with the fact that these are still KIDS, and kids need to learn that hard work will pay off, even if that personal payoff for that child may not actually serve the greater team goal of winning.

So I’m wondering how other parents feel about this. When it comes to youth sports, where does a coach need to find the balance between “everybody plays” and “let’s field the group of kids who are most likely to win this game?”   Does that balance depend on how old the kids are? Or should it remain the same from kindergarten through college? Have you ever been the parent of the child who never got to play? How did that feel for you, and for your child? Or maybe you’ve been the parent of the superstar kid on the team, frustrated when the coach puts the kids who maybe aren’t quite as skilled as your own into the game, giving them some play time but making it less likely that your child’s team will end up with the win.

What are your thoughts on this thorny topic, and how did you develop your point of view? Let’s talk about this one in the comments below.

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