by Brad Herzog, author of the Count On Me: Sports series
April is Youth Sports Safety Month, so there will be the usual conversation about physical precautions on and around the athletic fields. Stretch. Stay hydrated. Wear a helmet. Beware of overuse injuries and concussions. All important tips, of course, and the list goes on and on. But I would add another element to the sports safety conversation: Sports should be a place where it is safe for kids to fail.
Actually, no. “Fail” is the wrong word. Sure, a jump shooter can fail to sink a three-pointer. And a batter can fail to move the runners into scoring position. And a golfer can fail to escape a sand trap. But in the bigger picture, participation—when done right and respectfully—should never amount to true failure. Kids may lose the game, drop the ball, stumble, strike out. They may be frustrated, disappointed, even temporarily devastated. But no kid—and no parent, coach, or other adult charged with guiding that child—should ever define that as failure.
The five books in my Count on Me: Sports series, published by Free Spirit last year, are all about character amid competition. Each celebrates an attribute—courage, sportsmanship, perseverance, generosity, teamwork—through twenty true stories that warm the heart. Many of the stories concern physical risks in sport, and competitors who turn tragic situations into triumphant ones.
A young female softball player hits the only home run of her life, but hurts her knee rounding first base—so her opponents carry her around the bases. A young cross-country runner collapses fifty yards from the finish line—so the girl right behind her stops to help her across. A round-the-world sailor ditches his plans for victory in order to save a capsized colleague. These kinds of stories offer obvious and compelling life lessons about priority and humanity.
But smaller moments can offer large insights, too. They are the moments when an adult can teach a child that the athletic fields are a safe place to be competitive but also kind, where you can be persistent without losing true perspective.
I was at a middle school basketball game not long ago, watching my friend’s son play. My friend is a nice person, a former college basketball player herself. After her son fouled an opponent, who subsequently missed a free throw, she clapped and shouted, “Good foul! Good foul!” She was trying to convey to her son that the strategy to foul wound up having a positive result, something that probably happens scores of times every day during the basketball season. And sure, it’s rather harmless. But all I could think of was that a twelve-year-old missed a foul shot, and a parent in the crowd decided to applaud it.
While the Count on Me: Sports series is designed to enthrall and educate young sports fans, there is still no substitute for the adult role model in the heat of the moment. Courage? In the world of youth sports, I would suggest that it takes a certain bravery to step away from the knee-jerk traditions of fandom and the instinct to cheer for your child without regard for someone else’s. Sportsmanship? The coaches’ in-game performance—their comments echoing in young athletes’ ears—can be more powerful than any general instructions to “be a good sport.”
Perseverance? By approaching a child with love and respect after a contest, regardless of what the scoreboard says, a mom or dad can show that perseverance is not about the end result, but rather the relentless effort. Generosity? Even a simple postgame handshake should be more than just a grudging routine—and nobody can model that better than the adults in the room. Teamwork? One person can do wonders by doing the right thing, but even that pales in comparison to a whole crowd of fans offering a lesson in character education.
I realize some who read this will roll their eyes. “True competitive fire requires aggressiveness, a stop-at-nothing sensibility,” they will say. “Touchy-feely doesn’t score touchdowns.” The thinking is: Hey, it’s a contest. There are lessons there, too. It’s winner take all. And not everyone can win.
But I don’t think that’s true.
Brad Herzog is the author of more than thirty books for children, including more than two dozen sports books. For his freelance magazine writing (including for Sports Illustrated and Sports Illustrated Kids), Brad has won three gold medals from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. Brad travels all over the United States visiting schools as a guest author. He lives on California’s Monterey Peninsula with his wife and two sons.
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