24 October 2018

School Sports and Parents

This is the fourth in a series of articles written for THE SUNDAY MORNING under the title 'The Interception'. Scroll down for previous articles.

If we talk about school children and sports, there’s a non-negotiable factor: parents. They are part of the story whether we like it or not. Parents have the greatest sway on a child’s choices, especially when they are very young. Parents can claim they know best about their children and that they have the children’s interests at heart. 

What are the interests of the child, as far as a parent is concerned? Well, broadly speaking, each child is a prince or a princess in the eyes of a parent. They want the chid to wear a crown, one day. Some kind of crown, even if it is something modest such as ‘living a comfortable life.’  Depending on the size, shape, color and frills that a parent envisages for a child, so he or she will do what’s thought to be best towards that end.  

Parents know about competition. They know that there are all kinds of competitions and that in the larger games that children inevitably have to play there can be smaller games that are like stepping stones — means towards an end.  Of course there will be a certain number of parents who encourage children to take part in sports, indoor and outdoor, in the belief that sports help develop character, instill certain values and teach invaluable life skills while offering rare insights into the ways of the world and how to deal with them. As many or more would think along different lines.

There are, for example, parents who believe they should plan ahead. That’s not a bad idea of course. However, when they try to micromanage the future of their children, things can get messy.  It can be dangerous when questions such as the following consumer a parents: What are his changes of making the team? Will she be made captain someday? Will this help my son’s chances of being made a school prefect? Will it help inflate his Z-Score? What are the costs and what are the benefits?

The cost-benefit question is a given. It’s considered consciously or unconsciously.  Strategizing is not bad per se. Venus and Serena Williams owe a lot to the plans laid out carefully by their father. Lonzo Ball of the Los Angeles Lakers and his brothers were groomed by their father to become NBA players.  But then again, there can be too much of a good thing too. Children can be scarred by the drive of their parents, some of whom want to live vicariously through their children the sporting lives that somehow bypassed them.

It is sad that skill and hard work alone won’t deliver success. Parents interfere and, worse, are allowed to interfere. Coaches and teachers-in-charge prey on the fantasies of parents.  Integrity, sportsmanship, due process and such are frequently compromised. A leg up is rewarded. Sometimes a chance or a second chance is what can make a difference and such ‘chances’ can be purchased. 

Admittedly this can help the child. Sometimes it is that extra opportunity that gives an individual an edge over fellow-contenders, say, for a secure place in the team. Captaincy can open doors post-school that might not be opened to others. But then again, what kind of citizen is being developed and let loose on other citizens, do we pause to ask ourselves?

The tragedy is that the entire systems of sports in schools is full of such short-cuts. It has loopholes. And many among those tasked to keep things clean and fair are themselves corrupt. When a parents sees his or her child shortchanged by such a system time and again, ‘big love’ suggests that they follow suit. Bigger love, so to speak, would say ‘no, that is not going to help your child’.  

Parents can help and they can wreck. It’s a delicate operation. On the one hand encouraging a child to be competitive is positive, but admonishing him/her too much can detract.  You don’t want your child to be a loser, obviously, but there’s a big difference between losing and being a loser. Defeat teaches invaluable lessons. Defeat helps one recognize flaws, which of course is the first step in correcting them and performing better. Victory can also teach, but the notion of winning-at-all-costs can subvert the overall development of a child, both the sporting personality and the overall persona.

There’s a difference between being involved in a child’s extracurricular activities and interfering in the same. It’s up to the parent and the worth of choices made is never immediately known. When knowledge comes, it can be too late.  

Parents cannot correct flawed and unfair systems. They could abuse those very flaws, or they can, in the event their children become victims, help teach the child that life is not always fair, that systems are not always fair, and that sad, disappointing and even tragic though it is, the worst thing is to embrace flaw and injustice.  Some will fight harder and rise despite these obstacles, and some will strive and fail. Either way, they’ve triumphed. 

Of course, such victories, being intangible, may not be as pleasing to parents as a shiny trophy that their beloved son or daughter brings home.  In the end it comes down to whether you want your child to be a better human being who hasn’t a trophy chest to show off or a ‘successful’ sportsman or sportswoman with a tarnished reputation and terrible character flaws.