Reclaiming true greatness in youth sports

Paul Stuligross

Paul Stuligross

Sports programs today aren’t what they used to be; at least some of them. Thankfully, many in the Catholic League still hold true to what’s important. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t programs laying foundations for a race to nowhere.

Before I go any further, let me say I love sports. I’ll be the first one sitting in front of my television for the bowl games. But I’ve noticed something lately — youth sports aren’t what they used to be. Gone are the days when kids could dabble in two or three sports, or play “just for fun.” Now, parents are tempted by programs promising lots while bilking them out of hard-earned cash. And either you “toe the line” or your kids don’t play.

In his article “The Race to Nowhere in Youth Sports,” writer John O’Sullivan points out the “nightmare” some parents experience when trying to provide their kids with an array of different extracurricular options. O’Sullivan describes youth sports today as an “adult-driven hyper-competitive race to the top that serves the needs of the adults, but rarely the kids.” And at best it doesn’t produce better athletes; it produces bitter ones who get hurt, burned out, and quit sports all together.

Most parents don’t follow this trend because they’re bad; they follow it because they fear their child will be left behind if they don’t. Now, rather than being encouraged to try different sports, many kids are being coerced into choosing only one at too young of an age. And often, it’s coaches’ egos that are behind it. As O’Sullivan points out, parents realize that running their child ragged isn’t helpful, but they don’t see an alternative. Thus, “although we want to go on that family camping trip, we’ll have to miss it or the other kids will get ahead.”

The system stinks. It stinks for parents, many of whom don’t have the resources to keep one child “in the game.” And it stinks for coaches who actually care about their players. I sense some vicariousness here — coaches who believe they’re the next Vince Lombardi, and parents who are convinced their kid is headed to the major leagues. It begs the question: when did it get this bad? Are these just symptoms of a culture that’s replaced faith in God with faith in fame? What about coaches who truly care about their players?

The best coaches are able to develop not only better athletes, but better people. And sports should be an avenue to get there. Meantime, in the midst of our race to be parents of children who are lauded by the sports community, we’re robbing them of their ability to be kids.

This desire for fleeting greatness has even reared its ugly head in the way we play our games, from angry athletes who punch out referees to head coaches who aren’t satisfied with just winning, but obliterating their opponents.

Thankfully, there are coaches in our Catholic schools who refuse to be steered this way — and I’ve been blessed to know a few of them. From my old alma mater, Catholic Central, to the school I work for now, there are men and women whose desire to build character supersedes their desire for prominence.

Not long ago, on a cold November night, I saw one in action. St. Mary’s was beating Linden High School soundly near the end of the first half. With less than 30 seconds on the clock, St. Mary’s was driving again, with the ball on the Linden 3-yard line. Everyone waited for the inevitable — a time out or a quick snap to drive it in to drive up the score even further. It didn’t come. Instead, Coach George Porritt let the clock run out.

At halftime, while giving a tour of the St. Mary’s campus to some Linden people, one of them asked: “Why did he do that?” Without hesitation, another answered: “Because he’s got class.” I couldn’t agree more. How easy it is for us to pitch our Catholic schools as genuine when the tenets of our faith are actually lived out on the field. And don’t think for a minute those kids on the turf didn’t notice. Did I mention, the woman who asked that question had a son on the Linden football team?

When goodness replaces trash talk, and virtue, selfishness, perhaps we’ll come to a place of balance again. Until then, we can continue to do our best to expand God from our churches onto the field. Maybe then we can start to reclaim what’s been lost for some of our kids.

Paul Stuligross is director of campus ministry for Orchard Lake St. Mary’s Preparatory and is a former police officer.