As a self-confessed old-head, one of the things that disappoints me the most about the state of youth sports is the loss of free play. It seems that virtually everything nowadays is organized. And, while that may provide a structure that fits nicely into our schedule and ideals, it often misses on other critical values that we frequently find absent in young adults … or old adults.
From the age of twelve to fifteen, Sunday afternoons meant pick-up tackle football games with my older brother. There was nothing I looked forward to more during that time than those games and the rides to and from them with Johnny.
I learned quickly that toughness was a required trait. It wasn’t optional or desired, it was required. It was never talked about, but it was clearly understood. With a gravel driveway as the fifty yard line, there were certainly a fair share of injuries. What I learned very quickly is that the injury didn’t matter, how you reacted to the injury however would etch your future in stone.
If a player suffered a minor injury, but acted as if it was catastrophic, they immediately relegated themselves to the last pick - or not even being picked. Forgiveness would eventually set in and allow them to come back and play again … in a few weeks, not a few minutes. Coming back into the game after faining an injury was met with immediate disgust and ridicule that no one ever attempted to do it more than once. The message was very clear: if you can play, you play; if you can’t, you don’t. The injury was irrelevant after the fact.
Think FIFA soccer or NBA basketball. They wouldn’t have been able to play on Sundays with us.
Why Should We Care?
Win or go home used to be a real thing. Now it only occurs at the end of a long weekend of games after everyone has already played numerous times. Highlight videos have been bought and Tweets have been posted, so what’s really left? Does it really matter if you win or not?
When you play legit pick-up, against real competition, that is not the mindset. First of all, there are no cameras or tweets. The highlights are limited to the best kind - the ones that are embedded in our mind and exaggerated to others on the car ride home.
From my junior year of high school until I was three to four years out of college, my summer included regular pick-up basketball games at Thomas Cloud Park in Huber Heights and on the University of Dayton’s campus. Those games, often with older players, taught me quickly that winning was the only thing that mattered in pick-up basketball.
Winners stay. If you lose, it could be hours before you got the chance to play again - and that’s if you were lucky enough to get picked up by another team. I was never that lucky. So, I had to find ways to help my team win. It’s amazing how quickly players accepted their roles and played to their strengths when the pressures of leaving the court for an extended time were constantly staring you in the face.
The lessons abounded. Humility was accepted or the need for it realized quickly. Playing hard was not optional. Unselfishness was demanded. You willingly sacrificed for the team. You spoke honestly with teammates for the good of the team. You owned your mistakes. You enjoyed the pureness of the struggle and the honesty of the results.
REAL TALK - Action Steps
Here are a few ideas to keep in mind that we have to be intentional with now that so much free play has been removed from the maturation process of our upcoming leaders. These still must be learned, one way or the other.
I’ve commented before that I think I could make fail-proof hirings if I could just play a little pick-up basketball with each potential employee. It’s much more difficult to give a textbook answer in the heat of a pick-n-roll than it is in a comfy office chair.
For more information on building excellence in your teams, visit us at www.bluecollargrit.com.
We would love to know how we could help!
I'm a teacher, coach, and parent seeking excellence while defining success on my own terms.