Team Sports and Life Lessons

Growing up in Europe team sports for kids were generally unavailable. In Brussels at my elementary school “team sports” meant one hour twice a week playing soccer with the boys and girls in my class. This was a virtual free-for-all with no proper coaching, just an easy way for kids to run off steam.

By the time I arrived in France, however, our high school (a school for military dependents) did offer football and basketball but only for boys.  The closest “team sport” for girls was cheerleading.  As I loved being physically active, I joined and eventually became the varsity team captain.  Still, unlike the boys’ teams, there were no coaches to teach us new drills or even merely to encourage us to excel. 

America’s obsession with team sports for kids

Subsequently, I’ve always looked at America’s obsession with team sports for kids with a certain amount of doubt. Add to that envy and resentment and you can capture how I generally feel about the matter.  However, my attitude took a 180 degree turn after spending last weekend with my late husband’s family. For them, sports are a way of life.

It all started with a basketball game for Matthew, the 15-year-old, almost 6-feet tall, grandson and second eldest of four children.  I must admit having a soft spot for this kid who until recently, was the “runt of the litter.” Matt, as I call him, was tiny growing up.  While he was always physically agile, he was a shrimp. That didn’t stop him though.  Matt joined the basketball team anyway and learned to keep up with the bigger kids by being a strategic player and fast as the Flash.  Then one day he shot up and even exceeded his older brother, Markus, in height.

From cheerleader to basketball fan

When my stepson, Mark Lauber, asked if I wanted to watch Matt in action last Saturday, I jumped at the opportunity. While I still remembered some of the basics of basketball, I wasn’t prepared for what I encountered. After our 90-minute drive, we arrived at Sportika, a sports complex where seven AAU tournament basketball games were taking place concurrently.  The chirping sound of the players’ rubber soled shoes hitting the wooden courts plus the cacophony of the multiple referees’ whistleblowing was overwhelming.

Matt joined his team as his father and I took our seats in the stands.  While the players were warming up, I kept thinking about the long drive to get to this game. Besides the recreation and physical activity it provided, why was Mark willing to invest so much of his time and energy for his son to be a team member. Then, I calculated this time investment by four as all of Mark’s children play multiple team sports.

Team sports as a priority

During one of the time-outs, I questioned Mark. Knowing that he had been a star athlete in high school and college, I was curious to hear his answer.  Was he reliving his youth?  Or was he passing down some of the skills he learned at a young age through team sports? If so, what were these lessons?

Mark first explained why he and his wife Laureen devoted so much time chauffeuring their kids to various sports events. “It keeps our children off the streets.  It also distracts them from their iPhones and from playing Xbox for hours on end.” 

Taming the beasts

Then Mark rattled off a whole list of life lessons children acquire when they participate in team sports.  High on his list was discipline.  “While most kids can be unruly, when they belong to a team, they need to focus and observe rules.” 

The next reason was the value of teamwork.  When kids are little, they believe they are the center of the universe.  Add others to the equation and suddenly they are no longer the single star but rather a member of a constellation, Mark observed.

“Being a team member forces you to learn how to share both the ball and the limelight,” Mark continued. “Besides sharing, you must trust that collectively the entire team will succeed.  In fact, a team achieves more collectively than if each member were acting alone. This is a hard lesson for young children to grasp but eventually they do if they stick with playing a team sport.”

Winning and losing with grace

That brings us to the next lesson:  learning how to win with grace and loose with dignity. When you lose you learn how to deal with adversity as things will not always go as you want them to in life.  Let’s face it.  Life isn’t always fair.  While there is no denying that not winning can hurt, young athletes are taught to know, just like the Tiger Woods of the world, when to move on and when to try again.

We watched as a player was fouled for tripping an opposing team member taking a shot.  When he stopped and extended his hand to help lift the other boy up, Mark turned to me and remarked, “And it also teaches good sportsmanship.”

The importance of being present

Adding to the list, Mark talked about the importance of being on time and communications.  The first is obvious as you can’t be on a team if you don’t show up. The second, according to Mark means “you need to be able to listen to as well as make yourself heard by not only your team members, but also coaches and referees.”

Mark continued, “Kids involved in team sports learn to be achievement oriented.  In setting goals, they develop a drive to succeed, a skill set which can last them a lifetime.” 

Being on a team your coach teaches you how to strategize and follow a game plan and not just shoot from the hip.  And if the game plan doesn’t go as exactly anticipated and you don’t succeed, you can learn from your mistakes.

Having the confidence to take risks

On the way home, I asked Matt what it meant to him to be on a team. He was in no mood to answer that question. Instead, he lamented the outcome of the game. During the first half, he acknowledged he had failed miserably each time he tried to take a long shot. However, instead of quitting, Matt preserved. Another life lesson.  By the second half, he had regained his confidence and helped the team bring the score—which was 15 points behind-—up to a tied-game.  His risk taking with those three-point shots almost won the game.  As luck would have it, however, Matt’s team lost by one point in overtime.

When we got home, Markus, Matt’s older brother was waiting for us.  Markus, who just graduated and is heading off to Villanova this fall, was the captain of his high school football team. As such, Markus set the tone for excelling in team sports for his siblings. 

Success does not come easy

I was curious what his role was like leading the charge for the Sommerville Pioneers. “As the captain I believe that the hardest challenge I faced was motivating the rest of my team was to follow through with practices and games. Practices were hard and many times players would not be able to find the motivation to finish. It was my job to make sure everyone was always trying their best and that they would not give up. This hard-working mentality translated into success in games as we were by far the best conditioned and hardest working team in the area.”

What Markus was discussing was the life lesson that success requires hard work.  Most athletes learn that time, energy and enthusiasm equal success.  And while a coach may provide the team with brilliant strategies on the field, it is up to each team member to push beyond his or her comfort zone to achieve something exceptional.

Learning to share the ball

Markus’ sister, Kaylee, is following in his steps as a gifted athlete.  At age 11, she is the top scorer on her girls’ soccer team. Her challenge is sharing the ball with her fellow team members who do not have her athletic ability.  Kaylee’s twin sister, Jessica—whose natural talent lies in singing and dancing and who, I predict, will end up in Hollywood someday— was happy to add half-jokingly “She’s a ball hog!”  

Kaylee explained that she plays sports because she finds being on a team fun.  “I love the game of soccer itself and enjoy working as team.  I also learn a great deal from my coach, Graham Jones, who teaches us all sorts of moves and techniques to improve our game.” At which point, she grabbed a small soccer ball and demonstrated on the living room rug the three step Naymar chop she had just learned.  It involved rolling the ball with the sole of your strong foot, then moving your other foot behind you and kicking the ball from behind.  “This move always catches the opposing team by surprise,” Kaylee explained confidently.

So, what does your coach say to the team when you don’t win, I asked Kaylee.  She looked up in earnest with her big brown, puppy dog eyes and said, “He encourages us to do better.  Our coach would never put us down for losing as he feels it is important to keep our self-confidence high.”

The what-if game 

Not everyone is as serious about sports for their children as Mark is.  His younger brother, Chris, encouraged his two daughters to play soccer when they were growing up but with a more casual approach.  One of his daughters, Nicole—now a 30-year old Project Director of Aromahead Institute—told me once that she loved soccer because it was fun.  When I asked her to elaborate, she explained, “I made a lot of friends from the various teams I was on, some of whom I’m still in touch with 13+ years later.  We never took the game too seriously. We laughed all the time, didn’t get too hard on ourselves if we lost, but also celebrated when we won.” 


Nicole and her fiancé, Ben—who also was less dedicated to sports as a young boy—sometimes wonder what life would be like had they been more committed. “We often get nostalgic for the game and tend to have a “what if...” mentality - what if we trained harder at a young age, took it more seriously, and were more competitive? Could we have been good enough to play at the college level, and possibly even the professional level?”

 Team sports with a purpose

 This is a question many of us could ask ourselves. But not Mark and Laureen who made the decision early on for their kids that sports would be an integral part of their lives growing up. To prove this point, I paid close attention to their “maneuvers” as parents as I was preparing to leave. The last thing I observed was Mark and Laureen carefully going over the next week’s schedule of games. Who was driving which child where.  It was a virtual algorithm of dates, times, and sports personnel.

 While Markus was on hiatus with his graduation activities, the rest of the family was going full steam ahead with practices and games.  With this constant flow of physical activity encouraged by the parents, it occurred to me that they were also teaching their children the important life lesson of good health.  Physical activity is, after all, one of the key components in a healthy lifestyle. 

As I ticked off the various life lessons I had seen played out over the weekend, Mark and Laureen’s game plan became clear. As parents, they had consciously chosen team sports as a vehicle for their children to eventually become healthier, happier and better adjusted adults. Now that is something to admire in today’s parenting.