Hard work, competition is healthy

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By John Shindlebower

Since last summer’s unfortunate tragedy involving a PRP football player’s death after a hot day of practice, much attention has been given to the issue of player safety.

This new focus can certainly lead to some positive changes and renewed emphasis that could prevent future injuries and deaths from occurring, but it’s also a situation that could tempt otherwise well-meaning people to diminish the values that sometimes can only be learned through the sweat of a practice field.

It’s premature to assign large portions of blame on coaches, administrators or others who may have been involved in last summer’s incident. The Jefferson County Public School’s own internal investigation, while citing some concerns about coaching methods, found the PRP staff was guilty of no violations or intentional harm. Others have been quick to condemn the administration’s handling of the situation and the matter is currently moving through the judicial system since the coach is facing formal legal charges in the matter as well.

There’s been proposed legislation in Frankfort that would add new restrictions and requirements for coaches involving summer practices and other activities. Without going into full details, suffice it to say that some of these might be warranted, but some might be a bit overboard.

I know the matter hasn’t escaped the local athletic officials. This past spring, coaches in the Spencer County school system were asked to attend a school board meeting where a representative from the Kentucky School Boards Association was on hand to discuss the legal liabilities of schools, coaches and others involved in athletics and extra-curricular activities. Simply put, the evening was a stark reminder that there are serious consequences if the adults in charge of these activities take them lightly or fail to take reasonable precautions to keep participants safe.

While the safety of players should be the first priority, the lessons that only come through looking at life through eyes that burn with sweat should never be easily dismissed.

There are countless examples of communities across the country that have stripped sports of their meaning by trying to persuade young people that results have no meaning. While some of these efforts may be well-intentioned, especially in younger ages, many such efforts have carried over into the realm of ridiculous. There are communities where scoreboards have been removed from playing fields and where parents have been banned from sidelines.

I remember reading the account of one such attempt to ban the act of keeping score in a certain community. According to the article, parents were finding that the first question many of their children asked when they came to the sidelines after the match was “Who won?”

Competition is natural among humans, and it’s also healthy. Two necessary components of competition is winning and losing. It benefits participants to be able to experience both, and to learn how to handle both in a gracious manner.

Likewise, athletics also provide an opportunity for young people to experience the payoff of hard work. A coach cannot take a group of young athletes and mold them into a competitive unit without requiring a lot of hard work and extra effort from the kids.

Yes, sometimes this hard work will result in sweat, sore muscles, extreme fatigue and even the unfortunate injury or two. I’m not advocating working kids to the point of serious harm, and I realize some coaches don’t seem to care when the line is crossed.

But most are reasonable and sensible enough to know both the importance of keeping their players safe, and the importance of their players playing through some discomfort, working hard, pushing them the extra little bit when the kid really wants to give up. But those are the moments when valuable lessons are learned.

We do are kids a great disservice when we try to make life easy for them, or try to pave a road so smooth that they’ll never encounter any unpleasantness or obstacles. Kids grow into adults by overcoming, by surviving and by striving. That you may know a 20-something or even a 30-something adult who seemingly has yet to mature past the high school stage (and I think we all have seen them) is evidence that we may not be instilling in our kids the right lessons of life.

Sports is a great way for those lessons to be learned, but only if those lessons are allowed to be taught.

I’m not sure how the PRP situation will be resolved, and I’m not close enough to the situation to even offer up an informed opinion. But I do fear an over-exaggerated response and what that might mean to a new generation of kids of whom less is expected and even less is demanded.

Keep that in mind in the coming weeks when you see our high school athletes out in the hot sun, sweating and not in the comfort of an air-conditioned room playing video games.