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For the Love of the Game

For the Love of the Game

My middle son, who had been playing rep level soccer as recently as September, has decided to switch his attention to basketball. The choice is partly because so many of his friends play basketball, and partly because of club issues with soccer, but the result has been a complete shift in focus.

He went from following club soccer in the English Premier League, the European Champion’s League, and (to a lesser extent) Major League Soccer, to following nothing but the National Basketball Association. He went from practising his footwork in the basement every night, to dribbling on the porch, shooting on our neighbour’s driveway hoop, and begging to go to “get the work in” at the church gym every day after school.

He’s become a gym rat overnight, just as he used to be a field rat. His sport of choice has changed, but the level of obsession remains the same. Instead of a professional soccer player, he’s now determined to be a professional basketball player.

The problem is that I just don’t look at sports in that way. Don’t get me wrong. I love to be involved in sports. I played football and rugby all through high school and played two years of varsity rugby (until it became clear that I was going to fail out of school if I continued). I’ve played basketball, volleyball, soccer, ultimate frisbee, and even baseball (which bores me stupid) in recreational leagues over the years. I’ve also dabbled in touch football, golf (also boring), tennis (slightly better), wrestling, and aussie rules football. I’ve refereed basketball, soccer, and rugby. I’ve coached high school rugby for five different schools in three different cities. I’ve coached my kids in every sport they’ve tried. I still play in a basketball league one night a week.

In other words, I love sports just as much as my kid does, but we love it for such different reasons. I love the physical exertion of it (the feeling of bodily exhaustion), the camaraderie of it (going for pints after a game), and the competition of it (pushing to achieve a difficult goal). He loves the show of it – “Did you see me shake that guy? Yeah boy, he need some milk.” – the status of it – “I be playin’ rep, my man. I ain’t just one a your housies.” – and the potential fame and fortune of it – “When I’m a pro I’m gonna be makin’ them seven figures, fam. The Lambo, the Gucc, you know what I’m sayin’?”

Which puts me in an awkward position as a parent sometimes. I want him to play sports, not only because it gives him focus, teaches him discipline, and keeps him out of trouble (which it does), but also because he’s good at it, and it’s a place where he can feel good about himself and his abilities. On the other hand, I want him to love sports for healthier reasons, to be less hung up on the status and money it might bring, and more able to enjoy it for what it is here and now.

But all he can see is the dollars and fans in his fantasy future. There’s no telling him that the chance of being a professional athlete is low. He only hears that as crushing his dreams. There’s no telling him that even the best players can have their careers ended by injury or accident. He believes he’s invincible. You can’t tell him that all athletes eventually have to retire. He simply can’t see that far into the future.

It’s a hard conversation to have between us. I want to encourage him to follow his dreams, of course, but I also want him to be able to enjoy things here in the present, to get the most out of life right here and right now. It’s easy to get so caught up in future plans that you overlook your present blessings.

I want him to see that playing hard and doing his best is a good thing, even if it doesn’t win him an NCAA scholarship; that working together as a team is a good thing, even if he never becomes a professional; that keeping his body fit and healthy is a good thing, even if he never gets the big payday and the fancy car.

So far, that conversation is a work in progress, but I hope he can come to that understanding soon enough to appreciate more fully the athletic talents that he has.