I am approaching the end of my tenure as a bonafide “soccer mom.” True confession: I was actually an extreme soccer mom who spent up to three evenings a week driving my son to a practice field 40 miles from home. I drove him to practice long after he could drive himself, because I was worried about his safety on the roads after a long day of school and sports. But, also because it allowed me all that extra time with him.
After years of playing club soccer, my son was invited to an Academy team, which was both exciting and contraversial. Exciting because the team competed nationally and controversial because the Academy forbids players to compete on their high school teams. He competed at this level throughout his Junior Year, and although he loved the boys and the competition, he gave it up after a year to spend his Senior Year finishing out high school playing sports with his classmates.
This was one of the first difficult decisions he had to make in his young life, and it was based on two things – first, he was recruited to college for both soccer and lacrosse, and second, the Academy commitment proved to be just a little too much. Because my son was also playing football and lacrosse for his school, he didn’t spend the time he should have on school work. (The demands placed on the boys in the Academy are being debated all over the country, but that’s a topic for another time). There just weren’t enough hours to do everything in the day, especially if he wanted to get a good night’s sleep.
In our family, as with many families in this country, we love sports for the community it provides and because it allows kids to explore (and often excel) in non-academic pursuits. My son’s example is an extreme one, but I have to ask myself whether we were wrong to let him pursue every sporting opportunity that came his way. His primary identification is as an athlete and he took full advantage of all the opportunities that opened up to him, giving him a range of skills and a good dose of self-esteem. In letting him pursue all three sports, we bucked the recent trend of specialization. In many ways the cross training helped him stay injury-free, and the joy with which he greeted each new season stands in stark contrast to the workman-like attitude (or burnout) that can overtake kids who specialize too young.
The Atlantic Monthly ran a controversial article recently called “The Case Against High School Sports.” In it, author Amanda Ripley compares the attention spent on athletic programs in the US compared to other nations, and bemoans this prioritization in a global economy where American students are woefully behind students from other parts of the world, and are particularly deficit in the STEM categories (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics).
Even though Ripley was a high-school athlete herself, she “wonders about the trade-offs” US schools are making. Her most compelling evidence is a story about a school in Texas that gave up its football team and quickly saw radical improvement in student performance. The school wound up resuming most sports after the initial trial year, but restricted students to only one travel team a year.
Ultimately Ripley’s argument is more focused on the attention that schools themselves place on sports, and sets aside considerations of how athletics can benefit students, schools and communities. The story provoked readers and received over 580 online comments. Passionately, readers argued that the lessons learned on the field are often as important as those taught in class, as this rebuttal to Ripley’s piece lays out in intelligent form. What the article really succeeded in doing was exposing a fault line in how we think about high school sports in this country.
As a family, we lived on that fault line, and gambled that a commitment to athletics was the right choice for our particular kid. It’s true that the year my son spent playing Academy level soccer pushed the envelope of reasonableness, but it also assured his college recruitment. In the case of our daughter, we took the more accepted route. She played volleyball for school and at the club level. From her experience, I can safely assert that kids who play just one sport – even if that includes a club commitment — can readily balance their social schedule and school responsibilities. She elected not to play sports in college.
While my household might have been an extreme case, both kids would agree with me that the benefits of high school athletics – on club teams and for school – went beyond health. Participating in both school and club sports teams consistently provided an outlet that kept them busy. They learned that gaining a physical skill takes time, and lots of repetition. They garnered emotional fortitude coping with difficult coaches and punky teammates. They gained a gut-level understanding that athletes lose as often as they win. And, best of all, they made lifetime friendships and had a whole lot of fun.
I have never relished the much-derided moniker of “Soccer Mom,” but if being one has meant that my kids garnered these real-life lessons, I will wear it with pride. Especially as the years of sitting on the sidelines draw to a close.