The losing team

The college women’s basketball playoffs were incredible this past week. I am not usually much of a sports fan but local enthusiasm for LSU’s team in the Final Four was contagious. The players’ athleticism and teamwork bordered on the magical, and I loved their stylistic expressions on and off the court. My sports-minded family and I cheered the final games, even tearing up at the heartfelt acceptance speeches when South Carolina won undefeated. Awesome!

Earlier this year I cheered a much younger team. My son joined his school’s basketball team (the Mighty Oaks!) as the oldest–and tallest–of a mixed fifth-through-eighth-grade group, some of whom had never played before. I loved that his school welcomed any middle-schooler who was interested (no try-outs), but games against other schools could be rough. The Oaks got creamed. Most other schools had indoor gyms, outdoor courts, year-round coaching, and enough students to rotate through during a game. Our little school didn’t have any of that. But we had a lot of heart.

On the court, our kids quickly realized that part of the game was getting physical, stealing the ball, playing scrappy. Over the season, they shifted from surprised (what just happened?) to questioning (was that okay?) to daring a little assertiveness themselves.

But I felt conflicted. My spouse and I sent our kids to a Waldorf school because we wanted them to learn cooperation and peaceful conflict resolution. I didn’t want my kids to learn aggression in a world that doesn’t need more violence. I worried that overly competitive sports might undo everything I hoped they’d understand about moving through the world peacefully.

Talking with other parents and the coaches gave me hope that they were learning other things too. The court was a safe place to get a little rowdy and channel frustration and aggression. Winning wasn’t the only objective. Playing ’til the end even when they were down by fifty points taught them determination. They grew their skills individually and played better together. They sought joy in the game itself.

It’s amazing to watch athletes at the top of their game. It’s also amazing to watch children gaining skills, bonding as a team, going on when they want to give up. And when one of them actually, finally scored and their parents and siblings and coaches lost their ever-loving minds cheering and hollering and screaming, the looks on the kids’ faces said it all. The Mighty Oaks might not have won a game this season, but I’m pretty sure all the kids who can will be back to play again next year. And their parents will be in the stands hollering themselves hoarse.