Dear high school athletes,
Sport can teach you a lot of things. It can help you understand self-belief and show you how to contribute to a group. It can make you feel as if you belong. It can provide you friends and teammates. It can give you a reason to try and a purpose to get better at something; a coach to teach you and inspire shared cause and effort. Sport can indeed be grand. It can also make you rely too much on these things; on this system and its prescribed path. When your work holds allegiance to a game, your identity as an athlete will be all you wish to know.
You’ll start believing that the guy or girl who laces up for practice is your best self. You’ll pump up that athletic ego so much it’s all that you can relate to. Your success here cannot possibly be duplicated. Being good at this makes you good at this. It’s ok to shrink when the season ends. Life outside of sport doesn’t matter that much.
Be wary of letting your ability to get a ball into a hoop or past a goal line define you. It’s much too small of a mission in this world. The sport you’ve come to excel at is a product of your efforts. You are not a product of the game. Without people sports are nothing. Don’t forget this. You would still exist in this world without that sport — it cannot exist without you.
We like what we are good at. We practice what we like. Work doesn’t seem like work when you enjoy what you’re doing. But please know it is work. Giving your summers away to train and attend camps? You choose this. Spending hours, often by yourself, analyzing and practicing the minutia of footwork and ball manipulation? You chose this too. You weren’t destined to be good at this. You made yourself good at this. The distinction is an important one. Which you give credit to is the one you most believe in.
The flow you experience while practicing or playing can be found in other things. You are good at this because you made yourself good at this. It may be hard to accept right now, but you can be even more magnificent outside of sport. You are capable of being your own guide and creating your own environment and establishing your own plans and goals. Yes, this will take self-assessment and reflection, a work much different than you may be used to, but you’re good at practicing. Practice makes you excel.
Remember the times you lost or came up short? You attacked your newfound deficits with a vengeance. This is the tenacity that transfers into life. The seeking, searching, questioning — these are the skills that will prop you up when your final season ends. Your love affair with sport is one-sided. I know what it is to be convinced that a game could love you back, but it couldn’t care less about you. Learn this now before the calls and texts stop and leave you broken. You were meant for more than this.
When I say this in person to a kid struggling to see past the prestige of their uniform, I am confronted with terrified doubt. It’s quite possible that no one has told them this before. Why should they believe this when their entire life experience has shown them otherwise? People pay attention to them when they’re on the field. Their athletic efforts are supported by crowds and boosters and coaches and teammates — a bandwagon of folks who sincerely hope and trust in their victory. I’d probably believe the masses too if they were screaming my name. Quiet moments pulled aside aren’t for cheering. They’re for instilling other possible truths.
From the beginning, your days as an athlete were pre-determined to end. You were supposed to move on, to expand. Your accomplishments are transferable. It’s only the currency and field that changes. You’re still going to get your chance to be great at something. The hard part will be finding what that is.
Life doesn’t give you a roadmap. It doesn’t schedule practices and book facilities and line-up friends to play with. There won’t have a coach to relay feedback or yell out motivating insults. It’s just you and time and your ability to figure things out. If you’ve never asked questions, this skill won’t come easy to you now when you need it most. When the plan fails or there is no plan, you have to be prepared to think and redirect.
You’ve done this before. That day you walked into your first practice. You didn’t know anything, but you showed up and were willing to try. Maybe you did it because your parents signed you up and dropped you off, or because your friend invited you, but you were the one who stood at the edge of the unknown and gave it everything you had. Void of expectations, you’ll be surprised at how far this can take you, and how much better you can be.