I love watching the Olympics. This summer, I even watched reruns for a week after the games were over as my entertainment while I exercised. Watching the athletes’ amazing prowess motivated me to go faster and longer and stronger.
What is it that so fascinates us about the Olympic games? Why are we so gripped with emotion over who wins and who misses their moment?
Like other sports, the Olympics give us a vicarious surge of emotion for the effort, the competition, the feeling of winning. We imagine the athletes as extensions of ourselves. What a sense of accomplishment when our team or our favorite athlete wins!
But it does not stop there. Some of us try to get there. Even knowing that almost all of us will never reach professional heights, many still try. I am talking about team sports for kids. When I was a kid, team sports were about the game. We took the competition in stride, while learning sportsmanship – in playing, in winning and in losing. While a spirit of competition drove us, it didn’t define us.
I think things have changed dramatically since my childhood in the 60’s and early 70’s. Today the attachment to sports among many of our kids is much more serious and intensely competitive, and often not about “play.” It is about winning. It is about performance. That’s not bad if it is a part of a child’s identity formation. It can surely boost a child’s self esteem.
While in a previous era most kids developed their identity through their religious community and extended family, today sports can take center stage. Perhaps that’s an indictment on religious communities and our ability to be a compelling force in the lives of emerging young people. But it is also a comment on the values of our culture and its priorities.
Today, the coach often plays the clergy role as an authority and guide. The power of coaches in dictating schedules and priorities for families is stunning. My generation reveled in the insistence of baseball player Sandy Koufax that he not play on Yom Kippur when he would have pitched for the first game of the 1965 World Series. He was our hero.
Times have changed. In today’s culture, sports routinely take precedence over religious school, Shabbat and holidays. Many kids and parents worry about being left out of games or even the team if they miss practices or games. Today’s heroes win on the field, and rarely by declining to participate.
But coaches and games, no matter how good, can’t help us with core questions of life the way our religious traditions can – as a foundation for our whole lives.
We need to get back to a better balance – where religious schools, which have mostly become quite nimble at adapting to the sports-conflict phenomenon, provide experiences so compelling that it would be harder to miss it. But more — coaches also need to understand that other activities are equally important to a child’s development. Coaches and parents need to teach their kids perspective – the game is just a game. Life – that’s a different matter. Four thousand years of Jewish tradition offer an inheritance that teaches us to live a life that matters. That takes practice and coaching too.