Stop Stealing Dreams: What Are Sports For?

By November 7, 2014 November 8th, 2014 11 Comments

Seth Godin wrote a manifesto called Stop Stealing Dreams: What is School For? and it was shared millions of times. He spoke at TedxYouth about the future of education, how we reward kids, and what we can do better. Both posts are worth diving into.

I love athletics. I know this doesn’t surprise you 🙂

So many life lessons.

It’s a shame more kids don’t get the chance to experience them.

My competitive streak still comes out when I’m running and have to catch that guy in front of me, when I’m sprinting down the soccer field and just can’t get there quite as easily as before, or when my children play the long-standing rival.

With age, sore knees, and raising children, perspective grows. When your child plays, there’s an opportunity to reflect on the point of it all.

Growing up I accepted the “cuts,” the “sorry, you’re not good enoughs,” the “varsity players vs. the junior varsity players” because, well, I didn’t get cut. (I considered it a shame math class didn’t make cuts.)

Until one day I did get cut. I was 15 and willing to quit track to wear a Westside cheerleading uniform. Rejection was a phone call. “Sorry, you didn’t make it.” As I sat gloomily in the kitchen, I imagined my try-out buddy getting picked up by all the popular senior cheerleaders and celebrated with vaseline in her hair, marker on their face, and other humiliations. Lucky! 

My mother considers this a blessing.

I was cut again in college. The list was posted outside the cross-country coach’s door after a grueling run on a freezing cold Idaho morning before the sun was even up. No conversation, just my name missing from the posted list.

That was TWENTY YEARS ago this fall and I can still feel the sting. I can still smell the cold Idaho air and the faint whiff of cow. I can still see the stars that twinkled on that morning. I can still remember what I prayed for…God, please let me run fast, please let me make this team. Please help me run my best.

I didn’t.

This is the stuff that stays with you.

Alas, not everyone can play or run on a college level, but by that time I could scrape my dreams off the Idaho track and keep going.

But for the kid who gets cut too early? That’s stealing dreams.

DSC_0407That’s not to say we shouldn’t strive for a high level of play.

That’s also not to say there shouldn’t be tiers.

But for every kid who wants to play, let them play.

This fall, Cope tried out for the girls varsity team soccer team. She was so scared she almost bailed. I pushed. Don’t not do it because you’re scared. That’s something you’ll always regret. 

After a week of a grueling two-a-day preseason, her name was on the list. “I can’t believe I made it,” she said, dazed. She’s young. She acknowledges she has to work on her ball handling.

You know why she made the team? The coach rewarded her preseason “hustle.”

Life lesson = guts matter. Grit trumps talent. Hard works = dreams come true.

I weep. I thank my lucky stars for such a coach.

AliciaslidesThis isn’t Cope – it’s Alicia. And it’s just a sweet shot. Um, you want to talk about grit and lessons on the field?

DSC_0413I love this photo. When Cope was devastated after a game (she’s incredibly hard on herself) this awesome team rallied.

(you wouldn’t believe how much begging I had to do for Cope to let me post this pic:)

Mentorship, compassion, kindness, love, courage, resilience

Life lessons right there on the soccer field

nelson And then there’s this guy. Lucky boy, he got his mom for a coach this year. (And once again I feel terrible because it’s really hard to coach and get good pictures of him.)

This year was a life-changing year. All summer he worked his tail off. He was obsessed with the world cup and Messi, watched his Youtube soccer videos, read about “the greatest soccer player in the world,” inspired that Messi is only 5’7.”

He practiced and practiced and practiced. He was never without a soccer ball. Okay, he did sleep. Once.

He started playing with me at summer soccer. Gerry, a boy’s varsity soccer captain went out of his way to make my boy feel good about his game. Free, life-changing mentorship.

In one summer my Nellie Mak was a tremendously better player, impacting the start of his eighth grade year. He had momentum. His confidence blossomed. He became a leader.

In our little town, at our little middle school, we don’t make cuts. And even though it creates some logistical headaches, everyone plays no matter the skill level.

But there are thousands of kids just like my son that get cut from their school team. So sad.

DSC_0074This year I had 30 kids. With only 11 kids that can play on the field at one time, is this a challenge? Uh, yeah.

Did we have the best year ever? Yep.

Do I want to keep all of these kids? YES. A million times yes.IMG_5537Because if there is one thing I’ve learned as a teacher and a coach, it’s this: human beings are remarkable. They’re ability will constantly surprise you.

DSC_0002With enough hustle, grit, and a little athletic ability mixed in, the kid who never played soccer before becomes a solid high school recruit.

For kids, athletics starts out as fun. But coaches are fired because they don’t “win.”

What are sports for?

What if we approached athletics as a learning environment, where attitude and effort counted as much as height and natural strength?

Seth Godin says, “When you’re six years old and you try out for the hockey team, only two things are going to get you picked ahead of the others: either you’re older (it’s true, check this out) or you were born with size or speed or some other advantage that wasn’t your choice.”

A seventh grader recently told me, “Adults say that winning doesn’t matter, but that’s always the first thing they ask – did you win?”

As a coach, I always try to remember: soccer is so great because it’s so FUN. Because it’s hard. Because it requires so much mental and physical effort. Because you get to play with a TEAM – those that are better than you and those you are better than. You get to make plays, learn to do the Maradona – you get to kick something! How FUN is that?

DSC_0041Some of my kids who I thought just weren’t very good last year showed up this year and they suddenly KNEW HOW TO PLAY SOCCER. All that dreaming over the summer, brain development, growing and kicking and running and world cup analysis. Coordination improved, dribbling clicked, bones, muscles, balance, the ability to see the field, anticipation – all of these things take time.

If I had cut them last year?

“What if we celebrated the students who regularly try the hardest, help each other the most and lead? What if we fast tracked those students, and made it clear to anyone else willing to adopt those attitudes that they could be celebrated too?”

IMG_5358Can’t you see their potential? 🙂

As a side bonus for coaching, you’ll get to ride THE BUS! Forget the field, this is really how you get to know a kid. I would tell you about “secret circle,” but sorry, I’m sworn to secrecy. Anyway, you probably don’t want to know.DSC_0697Our last game season was a friendly match-up on the turf, under the lights. It was the culmination of a near-perfect season. Lucky, lucky us – TURF! Screaming fans! All our dreams came true!DSC_0147Here’s my Brynnie-the-Pooh. She loves the game so much she laughs when she dribbles. DSC_0189Soccer makes stars shine in her eyesbrynne1 DSC_0230 DSC_0171 Perhaps you’ve heard me mention a few times how much I love this game?DSC_0417 And this guy. He just happened to come walking across my camera lens!DSC_0137The youngest roams during all these game. I hope she loves soccer some day, too. Right now she’s soft, sweet, and easily wounded. She could go either way. It depends on what kind of experience she has at an early age. I hope it’s a good one. Please don’t steal her dreams.

Recently Julia wrote of the origin of the word “compete.” We often connect compete with battle. Beat, destroy, annihilate, kill.

It really means:

compete: verb from Latin competere to seek together, from Latin com- petere  to come together, agree, to go to

Wouldn’t it be awesome if we saw team sports that way? Seek together. You’re right, Julia, that sounds so much better than “attack.”



  • Barrie says:

    I love your words…the definition of compete struck a chord in me, and I know it would for many. My family has struggled this year as we watched the increasing competitiveness of the programs…not the kids. They play a sport year-round now, instead of soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter, track in the spring…Now they play soccer in all 4 seasons! Talk about burn-out and boredom, I would think for the kids. The problem is that if they don’t “compete” year-round in a sport, they fall behind in skills that their peers gain. Yuck. It has been a lot of conversations over the fall, and a lot of long-term goals for our family to keep a perspective that I think is so easy to lose in the name of “winning.” I love your huge team! To me that is an awesome coach and shows the kids the value of just playing and trying your hardest to reap the rewards….Thank you for your thoughtful words.

  • Mary says:

    P.E. was a new amazing concept early 20th century. Even Girls were included. It was all about being stronger & healthy. Games were part of it but so was basic exercises, walking & hiking. Showering was a big deal because a lot of country homes didn’t have inside bathrooms. P.E. changed my older sister’s life: forever after she had to shower everyday and wash any article of clothing that touched her body. Lectures on deodorant abounded. Advertising took care of the rest. I hate seeing athletics replacing physical education in many schools. A few athletics pushing to the limit, some having life long injuries entertaining the masses of soft, pudgy kids eating junk on the stands.

  • Scott A says:

    Such a good post, Amy! I shared it on PA Athletics Facebook/Twitter. People need to read this. Need to be reminded why we have sports as such a big part of our kids’ days at Proctor. Winning is fun, but it’s not all about winning, it’s about striving; about developing the confidence in oneself to take a risk; about teamwork, compassion, perseverance. You nailed it. Thanks for sharing!

  • Alice J. says:

    Terrific, terrific piece you’ve written here. It has always seemed to me that many coaches/sports give up on kids too quickly. You know those practice “games” where if you miss the ball you sit on the sidelines while the kids who already know how to handle/hit the ball get to keep playing? How do things like that improve a struggling player’s skills? Answer: They don’t. And then that player loses valuable time just sitting instead of working on skills. AND, I want to say that kids who are on lower-level teams need great coaching probably even more than the kids on the top level teams. They need coaches who will really work on skill building, not just settle in to the “they’re not very good” mindset. The best coach(es) our son ever had were high school seniors who made it their mission to improve the boys’ skills. What an amazing improvement. The kids just soared with happiness. They worked together, felt empowered, and loved the game. They PLAYED. And that’s what it’s all about. Thank you so much for writing this!

  • Adam says:

    Really enjoyed reading this and hearing your voice. So clear and strong, but presented in a way that underscores your openness to dialogue. As the Dad to two little dudes, this part struck me the most, “The youngest roams during all these game. I hope she loves soccer some day, too. Right now she’s soft, sweet, and easily wounded. She could go either way. It depends on what kind of experience she has at an early age. I hope it’s a good one. Please don’t steal her dreams.”
    I worry about that in my boys as well. I don’t really care if they play sports or not, I just want them to be happy and have their dreams realized. Recently, Leo has been saying, “I can’t build this. I’m not a good builder. I don’t know how.” And I’m thinking…you ARE a good builder. Where do you learn that you weren’t a good builder. Reminds me of the value of rewarding effort and not talent. Thanks.

    • Amymak says:

      Thanks, Adam. Love your comment. I’ve become much more cognizant of giving praise for effort over natural abilities (even with girls, saying ‘you’re so pretty’ isn’t very helpful or self-esteem building as outward beauty is completely beyond our control….) I’m also trying to ask ‘did you have fun?’ Before asking the score 🙂

  • Julia Tomiak says:

    This is fantastic! Yes, we encourage our kids to play sports not because we think they’ll play in the World Cup (although they do), but because athletics, in the proper environment, teaches perseverance, hard work, goal setting, and team work. I love soccer for all the reasons you do (and you are a saint- having 30 kids on the team must have been a subbing nightmare!) Great thoughts… hopefully someone will turn this into a podcast too, because there are a lot of adults who need to hear it!

  • Julia Tomiak says:

    Thanks for the shout out, too! 😉

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