Every sport or pastime has its unique culture. Sometimes we’re drawn to an activity partly because of its culture — and sometimes we participate in spite of it.
As a life-long basketball player and coach, I’ve been saddened to watch the dominant culture of that sport grow increasingly belligerent, violent, narcissistic and misogynistic. Last spring, I stepped away from coaching basketball after 26 years at various levels. I still love the game. I just couldn’t stomach the culture.
But you know what they say: one door closes, another opens. When my youngest son discovered a talent for running and joined his high school cross-country team, I was introduced to a culture of support, caring and camaraderie such as I never expected to find in the world of competitive sports.
And make no mistake — cross-country is competitive. It’s not some mamby-pamby after-school activity where everybody gets a trophy. The kids want to perform well, and they train as hard as any athletes I’ve ever been around. As my son, who also plays basketball, put it: “Compared to cross-country practice, basketball practice is nothing.”
It’s just that, in cross-country, competition is reserved mostly for the athletes. One thing that soured me on basketball was seeing how invested the parents can get, and how that leads to anger and even violence. I’ve watched basketball parents yell at their kids, yell at other people’s kids, yell at each other, yell at the coach. I’ve even seen them confront coaches or other parents after a game, which can create some pretty volatile situations.
That just doesn’t happen in cross-country. Parents pull for their kids, sure, but they also pull for all the other kids — even kids on other teams. One of the most heartwarming things I’ve ever seen in sports is a bunch of parents and athletes cheering on the very last runner as he or she approaches the finish line.
That’s because even though cross-country does, like every sport, have winners, unlike most sports it doesn’t have losers. The only time you lose in cross-country is when you quit. You could be 150th out of 150 runners, and if you finished the race, you succeeded.
In sports like basketball, players and coaches tend to vilify their opponents (which may explain the violence). But in cross-country, your chief opponent is always yourself. Regardless of where you finish, if you beat your PR (personal record), you can go home feeling like you accomplished something.
I can’t help but think that’s what sports for young people ought to be — character-building, affirming, teaching both the value of hard work and the importance of being a decent human being.
If you want your child to be active but are understandably leery of other sports’ cultures, I highly recommend cross-country. I’m certainly looking forward to season number two — even despite all those early Saturday morning meets.
Rob Jenkins is a longtime newspaper columnist and the author of "Family Man: The Art of Surviving Domestic Tranquility." Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter @FamilyManRob, or visit www.familymanthebook.com.
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