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21 August 2023

The Magic in the Madness of Youth Sports (and what leaders everywhere can learn from it)

Written by
Chantal Laurie Below

I like sports. I played tennis and field hockey in high school and I enjoy a Giants’ baseball game complete with a bratwurst dog and conversation with friends in the stands. I cringe and delight in watching my eight year old accidentally shoot into the opposing team’s basketball hoop, recognizing the lessons learned from sports: stay focused, support each other, learn from mistakes and move on. 

But, I don’t love sports. I watch eight minutes of a Warriors’ game before I lose track of the score and start to wonder, ‘Does Curry’s Christian faith enable him to stay humble? Or, is it his wife that checks his ego?’ It’s questions about athletes’ stories that excite me, not their stats.

But, I’m now a parent to three kids playing sports, surrounded by kids and parents (and a husband) who love sports. Full disclosure: I’m struggling. 

Specifically, I’ve got a 13-year-old daughter who plays, and loves, competitive volleyball. It’s a great sport: fast-paced with lots of supportive cheers. Her team’s filled with welcoming and generous parents who coordinate snacks and team building activities and offer love after a loss. Her coach prioritizes player development over dominating the competition. I like that.

It’s also a sport that hosts tournaments in quaint locales like Vegas and Reno where (by my estimation) anywhere from 50-100,000 people are convening to watch 10-18 year old girls on 100+ volleyball courts at convention centers with blinding fluorescent lighting. Throngs of people mean the Starbucks line at Mandalay Bay (and anywhere near it) averages 75 minutes, no matter the time of day, and lines for a prepaid $35 visitor wristband take an hour. If girls are assigned the morning wave for a weekend tournament, they (along with their parent chaperone) wake up between 4:30 and 6:00am, depending on commuting time to a tournament, to be courtside by 7am. If they get the pm wave, games finish between 9 and 10 pm and we all scramble for dinner, crossing fingers that Round Table Pizza is still open and stocked (spoiler alert: it wasn’t in Reno). With some frequency, tournaments happen on a weekend and Monday, requiring kids and parents to call in sick. These clubs are expensive to join, the tournaments entice players with well-designed (and over-priced) ‘merch’, they require flights and hotels for the further afield tournaments, and for local ones you pay to park. Bottom line: it’s a racket that we’re seduced to believe is a privilege.

For someone who doesn’t love sports—or crowds, lines, sleep deprivation, 11pm dinners, sensory overload, or inefficiency—this is insanity making. For someone who believes in aligning values and actions, I ask myself often, ‘What are we doing!?’ Is volleyball really worth the financial, emotional, and logistical toll on our family? Is a tournament really worth missing school for? I’m compelled to answer, ‘Hell no.’

But, I see my daughter loves the team and is making new friends. She feels strong and proud as she improves, and the lessons she’s internalizing related to commitment and discipline matter. And, if she wants to play volleyball at any kind of competitive level (I’m not talking D1 college, I’m talking highschool), in our community, this is the option. So, if given the choice of being part of this system that is youth sports, quitting it, or dismantling it, I’m choosing, for now, to be part of it.

This means that instead of fixating on, ‘What are we doing?!’ I’m trying to take a breath and look beyond the smoke filled casino accommodations and incessant, piercing referee whistle to notice: ‘What’s the hidden magic?’ 

That’s when I think about the Sunday mid-morning in Vegas when my daughter and I snuggled up before her 2pm start time and watched Knives Out. If we were home, I’d be running errands and she’d be getting boba with friends. Or, I think about the four-hour drive to Reno where we listened to the playlist she created with friends and I guessed which person contributed which song. (Clearly, Ellie added The Weeknd’s: Blinding Light and Amelia, Anti-Hero). These games invited me into her life via the back door when her budding, independent self often keeps entry via the front door lock tight. Or, we bond over New York Times’ Wordle and Spelling Bee between matches and celebrity sightings of Vince Vaughn and Candace Parker (yes, their kids also play volleyball.) These micro-experiences serve as unfraught ways to build bonds. When a topic with heat—like grades or social media—has to be addressed, I now trust discord won’t implode the whole connection.

I think we all have a ‘competitive volleyball’ in our life. It’s the thing we bristle at, feel righteous about, or access some disdain for. It’s the difficult co-worker who astounds us with their insensitivity and makes us wonder, ‘Do I even want to work here?!’ or the off-site we’re required to attend that’s scheduled at the worst possible moment and assures us, ‘This is such a waste of my time!’ We’re not necessarily wrong about our selfish colleague or the poor timing of a retreat, but our fixation on it means we swim in indignation and miss magic. Maybe the co-worker needs our help understanding how their poor behavior lands so they stop creating pain around them and we are perfectly positioned to deliver the feedback. Maybe the off-site is at the exact right time, it will offer much needed reflection, but we can’t see that while immersed in our stress and worry. 

Sometimes, quitting the system entirely by leaving it makes good sense. Other times, dismantling it with a legal battle or whistleblowing is needed. Often though, being part of a flawed system is necessary and we have to choose a different orientation to it in order to thrive.

I’m clearly not ‘all in’ with competitive volleyball. A recent tournament did prevent us from helping out at a beach clean-up, ensured I sat indoors and sedentary on the sidelines of back-to-back games, guaranteed we missed Sunday family dinner, (and inhibited my binge watching of Derry Girls). It made it, therefore, tricky to honor my values of service, getting out in nature, collective family time (and quality TV). And yet, having intense, consolidated time with my daughter is also meaningful and an unexpected, beautiful byproduct of the whole experience. As I choose to be part of a flawed system, and feel the accompanying annoyance or disbelief, I also want to really, really notice the magic at play and relish in it for the sake of my daughter, our relationship, and my own sanity.

What about you? What’s the imperfect system you’re choosing to be a part of? What hidden magic might you find? What values will guide you there?

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