What is the point of competing in squash? To achieve a ranking or lift a tropy? Or is there something else that our kids can develop through the athletic experience?
In the quiet of the holidays, between a recent National Tournament in Baltimore and this weekend’s Regional Championships at The T, I find myself thinking: what is the value of squash for a child’s development? Does it lie in seeking triumphs at the highest levels of competition? Or is there some value in the act of practicing, striving, competing – even failing – all by itself?
My take is that athletic triumphs are one of the beautiful elements of sport, but the character values that sports can develop are the most enduring.
I have come to think of the athletic experience as a kind of laboratory for personal development. Kids need a safe place where they can develop and grow healthy human characteristics. This human growth has to happen somewhere. It’s not enough for parents to say: “Now, be diligent; show some perseverance; don’t wilt when things get tough; repeat your efforts in a given area and you will build skill over time; be considerate of those around you; listen and be respectful of those teaching you; set a goal and reach toward that goal little by little, week after week, month after month.” None of these personality traits can be developed in a vacuum. There must be some concrete place, some tangible activity, some specific human community where a child can work them out, like a muscle. Where a child can be challenged to act in concrete healthy ways, be given a circumstance in which to play out that action and then judge from results whether they want to repeat that action or try another way.
Squash at The T can provide precisely this: a concrete place, a set of circumstances and a specific community in which kids can learn and grow. In this sense, squash can form our kids into little scientists of the human spirit; and the athletic experience is a laboratory where they can learn for themselves what sets of behavior produce healthy, happy, desirable outcomes. Once they validate that hypothesis in practice, they can repeat and strengthen those actions until they become a stable trait in their character. This process becomes a very concrete and tangible path to developing healthy and strong personalities.
Kids and programs are naturally driven toward trophies and competitive achievements. Trophies are milestones that are good and beautiful and can crown a child’s unique athletic prowess and effort. But the work of human development through sport can happen for every child, no matter their ultimate results. This is the real and enduring beauty of sport.
A friend of mine – and a Canadian National Champion – once wrote that she wished that trophies were like fruit or flowers: that they would rot and wilt after a few weeks. That way we wouldn’t hold them up as permanent markers of our progress. The real marker that we should celebrate is the growth of our children’s character – their personal character and their place as members of The T athletic community. The best character traits become ingrained in our kids – regardless of wins or losses – just by virtue of practicing, competing, winning and losing. Things like grit; like courage and determination in the face of adversity; like patience and discipline in the task of skill development; like overcoming fear; like kindness and consideration toward teammates; like dedication to a long term vision when no one is looking; like developing a healthy perspective in the face of setbacks. When I think of the work The T has done over the past six years, the fact that we do this kind of work is what I am most proud of. This is the enduring work of a coach and educator.