He was this player of mine who wasn't particularly talented. In fact, he barely made the team his freshman year. He played a total of 21 minutes that season. When most of the squad got varsity letters, he got a certificate of participation. In his sophomore year, he got playing time in nine of 20 games, usually when the result was already in hand. He did a little better the next year, getting in 11 games as a reserve, but logged even fewer minutes than he had the previous season.
But Lee was special, and he came to mind recently after I’d read a couple of articles that touched on the concept of sticking out tough times.
In one, Michigan State men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo lamented that Division I basketball players were transferring schools at an alarming rate. He noted that over 700 players transferred last year compared to 200 a decade ago. Players dissatisfied with their lot at one school were increasingly picking up their basketballs and going elsewhere. Izzo attributed this phenomenon to a societal issue. “We’re creating a system that we’re never teaching a kid how to fight through (tough times),” he said.
The other article was written by a father who recalled the first time his son was eclipsed as the biggest and best player on his youth basketball team. He had worried about how his son would react. Every parent has been there. We cringe when our children don’t get the starting nod or the lead in the school play or the invitation to the party. In this instance, the father chronicled how his son had handled the moment so positively and how, as a father, he “couldn’t have been prouder.”
What makes a player push through adversity? I believe it comes down to this: Resiliency built during childhood and adolescence.
We all want our children to grow up to be resilient. Yet so many well-intentioned parents are failing to instill that attribute in their young. What to do? How do we alter the course that has gotten us to the point that Division I basketball players are ditching their programs at a rate so much higher than just 10 years ago? What did the father of that youth basketball player do in raising his son that we can emulate?
If we start with the end goal in mind – a strong, confident, capable, caring and resilient adult – then perhaps we can work through what it actually takes to get there.
I believe the first step is not just letting go of our children, but pushing them out. In the animal kingdom, offspring are quite literally pushed out of the nest or den at adolescence. They are forced to fend for themselves and find food and shelter in the wild.
Human history has worked much the same way, until recently in the western world. The rite of passage from child to adult has always been a process of challenges that lead to maturity and self-sufficiency. Nowadays, however, parents shelter their children, protect them, feed them, care for them and virtually bubble-wrap them from the world for far too long, sometimes well into adulthood. Children need to be pushed out. They need to fall. They need to be disappointed. They need to fail. Only then will they develop the ability to cope with and fight through adversity.
So, parents, make your children get a part-time job or mow grass or shovel snow or babysit and let them communicate with their boss on their own. Make them pack their own duffle and ride their bike to practice. Or drop them off at practice and go shopping rather than setting up a lawn chair to hover and watch.
If they’re uncertain about their role on a team, make them to talk to their coach (on their own). If they receive a poor grade on a test, tell them to study harder. If they have an authority figure in their lives with whom they don’t see eye to eye, whether it be a coach or a teacher or a scout leader, recognize the experience as invaluable preparation for the real world of dealing with sometimes intractable people.
When an adult in your child’s life holds her accountable for being on time or being prepared or giving her best effort, be grateful. Be grateful especially when these standards are uncomfortable for her. Be grateful even when the consequences of falling short of these expectations are hard for your child. Fight the urge to intervene, to call the coach or the teacher, to “fix” whatever ails your child. Support your children, console them, and remind them that they are strong and brave and capable of handling the adversity. Before you know it, they will be.
They’ll be like Lee.
Throughout what some might regard as a middling career at best, Lee never complained. He enjoyed the game and worked hard at improving. He never sulked, never blamed anyone for his shortcomings and through it all he supported the team.
Prior to the season in his senior year, his teammates voted him captain. A young man who had never once been in the starting lineup and only played sparingly was leading his squad. That season, Lee also started every single game.
Like the father of that youth basketball player, I couldn’t have been prouder.