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The value of athletics.

Our culture is inundated by sports ideals. Professional athletes are lionized as media icons. Their exploits are considered the pinnacle of success. Their status is so revered that they are given the opportunity to cut rap albums and appear in movies.


Their fame makes them spokesmen as they peddle everything from foot powder to video games. Their homes and cars appear on MTV "Cribs" for children to salivate over.

The reverence for these athletes is not so much for their deeds but for the outcome. Our society doesn't admire their skills and attributes as much as the wealth and fame that are the consequences. This is why felons, drug users, misogynists, thugs, and morons are icons to so many.

Despite the aforementioned shortcomings, participation in organized athletics is one of the most worthwhile activities in which one can engage. The real value of athletics is not in the ends, but in the means. We should encourage our children to play sports not in the desperate hope that they may one day turn pro, but due to the values, habits, and life-lessons that are endemic in athletics.

No activity mirrors real life experiences the way an athletic contest does. Children are often blanketed with syrupy, saccharine ideals that contradict the realities of life. Kids are told, "it doesn't matter if you win or lose." They are told, "if you work hard you can accomplish anything."

These are admirable thoughts that can be great motivators. However both are untrue. Life is competition, and it does matter if you win or lose. Whether you are one of the many applicants vying for a job, trying to get the best interest rate on a mortgage, or bidding on an item on e-Bay, you are competing and its better to be successful than not. The same applies to the second idea. Hard work is almost always a precursor to success, but does not guarantee it. In athletics working hard does not ensure you a spot on the team.

The best play, while the others do not. Similarly, not everyone can pass the bar exam or succeed in medical school. These are facts of life that are accurately echoed in athletics.

A similar phrase often employed is, "All that matters is that you try your best." Again, this is incorrect. In athletics, trying your best without achieving success gets you a seat on the bench. If your boss gives you a task to perform, and you don't accomplish it (even if you worked your hardest), you will not be getting a raise or promotion. Hopefully you will be able to keep your job.

These are the unpleasant, even harsh, realities of the workplace that those who play sports are able to comprehend.

Sports teach teamwork, dedication, and a work ethic. It is no great revelation that participation in athletics is an obvious asset in real life. The concept of teamwork often develops a kinship among teammates that is virtually unrivalled outside of G.I.'s in wartime.

All sports, whether team or individual, require goals to be set and diligent dedication to achieving them. This admirable consequence of athletics can be applied to all facets of real life.

As previously stated, winning and losing does matter. Since winning is the goal, it is certainly better to win than to lose. However losing may be even more important. It is easy to handle winning. Celebration and self-esteem are a natural consequence of success.

The real test of character occurs when you lose. No one wins all of the time, not in sports and not in life. How does one respond to a loss? Throw a tantrum? Point the finger at teammates? Throw in the towel? Or ... analyze and evaluate your performance to learn from the experience?

I have found that I have learned more from my failures than my successes. When I was playing semi-pro baseball, there was a particular pitcher who had my number. I was a .400 hitter yet I just couldn't hit this guy. He had a decent fastball and a very good, deceptive slider.

For two years I had little success against him, and after each unsuccessful at-bat my response was unproductive to say the least: I would throw my bat and helmet in frustration. The third year, the first game I faced him I went 0-4.

That night I sat down at my desk with a pad and paper and planned a strategy. I had observed that he used his fastball sparingly and kept it just outside the strike zone, relying heavily upon his slider. Previously, I had tried to jump on his fastball, and since it was not a strike, I'd foul it off or pop it up.

Now I decided that I would look for the slider. Since it would break away from me (a right-handed hitter) I would not try to pull it, but hit it to right field. The next time we played I went 5-5, the following meeting, 4-4.

Since then, I have applied this reflective strategy many times in real life. More than once I was on the verge of abandoning the project. However, I persevered and succeeded.

It has already been stated that life is competition. This is a fact that often has a negative connotation. It needn't be the case. Competition is healthy. It is what our entire capitalist economy is based upon.

However, competition is incumbent upon a practice with which all athletes are familiar: sportsmanship. A well-known idiom advises one to be "gracious in victory and humble in defeat." The practice of these traits cultivates respect for the victors and vanquished alike. Further, one could accept defeat on the field if the game had been played fairly. This is why there are rules and referees.

We do not have a laissez-faire capitalist system. The laws that govern economic competition are meant to keep the playing field level. Competition in other areas of life can be palatable if no one is given an unfair advantage.

For example, it is easy to accept someone beating you out for a government job if they scored higher on the civil service test.

Of course nepotism and patronage are also facts of life, but they are bitter pills to swallow. The fact that we consider these practices "unfair" is in many ways due to the sportsmanship ideals learned from athletics.

It is important that we do not exalt professional athletics for the fame and riches heaped upon them. It is just as essential, however, not to vilify involvement in sports out of disgust for the aforementioned vices.

Participation in organized sports and athletic competition fosters admirable character traits and provides valuable life-lessons. As much as we may wish otherwise, life is competition.

It need not be a vicious, dog-eat-dog experience, but it is competition nonetheless. Involvement in sports cultivates traits that help you to succeed, but also to cope with failure. By all means encourage children to become involved in athletics, but do not emphasize the glories lauded by the media.

Promote sports as a means to build character and prepare for life.

By Steve Leadley, Former Baseball Coach, Lower Cape May (NJ) Regional H.S.
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Title Annotation:professional athletes
Author:Leadley, Steve
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2006
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