Friday, December 21, 2012

Say Yes - How parents mold athletes into legends.

The Pursuit of Happyness
Chris Gardner Jr. (after scoring a basket): “Hey Dad, I’m going pro! I’m going pro!”

Chris Sr. (looking at his son): “I don’t know, you know. You’ll probably be about as good as I was. That’s kind of the way it works, and I was below average. You’ll excel at a lot of things, just not this, so I don’t want you out here shooting this ball around all day and night all right?”

Chris Jr. (looking dejected and throwing the basketball away angrily): “Alright.”

Chris Sr.: “Hey. Don’t ever let somebody tell you, you can’t do something. Not even me, ok? You got a dream, you gotta protect it. People can’t do something themselves, they want to tell you that you can’t do it. You want something, you go get it. Period”
This beautiful scene between the on-screen (and real life) father and five year old son, in Will Smith’s The Pursuit of Happyness brilliantly captures the role of a parent in a child’s life. Thinking back to all of the hockey parents I meet every year at Hayley Wickenheiser’s hockey festival, all the sports parents I meet in every day life, and even to my own parents, I realize that this scene is one that is played out for real in homes all across the world on a daily basis. At least I hope it is. I think about the parents of my heroes: Hayley Wickenheiser's parents, Christine Sinclair's parents, and Serena Williams' parents, just to name a few. They could have said no to their children pursuing such ambitious goals. They could have said no knowing that women's sports are not nearly as lucrative as men's sports, and that their daughters were looking at a potential future of financial insecurity and obscurity. They could have said no because a career as a pro female athlete usually means instability and relatively no glamour. They could have said no for all these reasons and their reasons would not have been wrong. They could have said no and our world would be without these incredible role models. But instead they said yes.

After over 25 years of research, the Women's Sports Foundation published an article detailing why by age 14, girls are dropping out of sports at almost double the rate of boys. The article identified six key factors that influence this high rate of drop outs:
  1. Lack of access - There are 1.3 million fewer opportunities for girls to play sports in high school than boys.
  2. Lack of transportation - It is harder for girls to find safe training sites and the location of such places can make it hard for busy families to participate.
  3. Social stigma - There is still a fear of being socially isolated because of preconceived notions about girls in sports.
  4. Quality of experience - Lack of equal competition as players get older. Players are sometimes required to play with and against boys, which most are unwilling to do. 
  5. Lack of role models - The females that our society hold in high esteem aren't always consistent with the mold of athletes. There is peer pressure on teenage girls to look and act a certain way. Often, being an athlete can interfere with this image that they are expected to portray. Lack of proper self esteem can lead to them deciding to quit their sport rather than go against the expectations that society has placed upon them.
  6. Cost - Schools are being forced to slash their athletic department budgets. Female programs are usually the first to get shortchanged, meaning that participants end up having to pay more money out of their own pockets to keep programs running. 
Despite all of these challenges, studies show that "girls active during adolescence and young adulthood are 20% less likely to get breast cancer in later life." The studies also revealed that more than 3/4 of career women feel that sports increases their self image. All the factors listed above can be mitigated by parental involvement and support. For young children, the support is in the form of financial assistance, transportation, and general encouragement. As kids get older and begin to play at a higher level, parents are needed to be sounding boards and supporters after setbacks or discouraging days. Teenagers face tremendous pressures to perform academically and athletically. They encounter peer pressure, tough coaches, challenging team mates and opponents, and general bumps along the long road to adulthood. Parents are what keep them grounded and confident. And once they hit adulthood, as Wickenheiser, Sinclair, and Williams have, their parents are still there to be their biggest fans. My mom and dad have the pleasure unfortunate task of being the parents of a goaltender. Every goal surrendered is dissected, every loss is vented about, every pressure filled moment leaves them breathless and stressed out, and my mom ends every day by asking me the same question: "why do you do this? And more importantly, why do I do this with you?" 

There are so many parents out there who make sacrifices for their kids to play sports. I hope they continue to provide encouragement and support to their children, no matter how old they get. We don't know where the next Hayley Wickenheiser, the next Christine Sinclair, and the next Serena Williams is right now. But no one wants to be the parent that says NO and forces their child to turn their back on the sport they love. There is a future in sport for everyone who pursues it. Your children can be difference makers on a local scale and maybe even on a global scale. Say "yes", be their rock, and watch where their passion takes them.