Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Playing the Game

Last week I flew to the other end of the country for what turned out to be a water polo festival. I, who have never been a very good spectator of any sport, got totally into watching eleven high school water polo games, half of them featuring a granddaughter who can swim like crazy and whack a slippery wet ball through a floating goal with amazing strength and precision. The other games were played by guys who hit the ball even harder.

The games took place over three days with a Sunday off in between. That’s a lot of dressing and undressing, getting wet and dry and wet again. And for some team members who haven’t yet reached their full potential and have to sit on the edge of the pool waiting for a chance to join in the fray, it’s got to be a bit of a drag.

But maybe not. These kids seem to love what they’re doing. They practice a couple of hours five days a week and never seem to tire of it. They sandwich in classes, volunteer activities and as much socializing as they can manage. In the off-season, most of them sign on to the swim team, the best way they know to stay in shape for water polo.

These kids become very close. They’re like a family. They count on each other in the pool and out. They laugh and play and struggle together. And their parents, who loyally support them, seem to have formed their own close social circle.

Last Friday, after playing extremely well in a hard-fought but losing battle in the tournament, a senior and one of the best players on the team, got out of the pool and told the coach he was finished. He walked away for good leaving behind a sterling high school record and with less than a month to go in his final season of play.

Reactions ranged from shock to sadness to anger from the coach,  the players and the parents. Turns out this boy’s decision had been coming for a while. He’d been struggling to make himself go to practice. His parents dragged him out of bed to get him to that final game.

The water polo parents had plenty to say to each other about the situation, but none of them, including his parents, had any good answers. They weren’t sure what to do. Perhaps there was nothing they could do.

It got me to thinking about how very important a role athletics often plays in a student’s life. How a sport can become all-consuming for players, their families, their coaches. The degree of commitment required. When you sign up for a team, how much do you owe it to your teammates to stick with it through the season regardless of how difficult that may become? Does a star player have a larger commitment than a bench warmer? What’s the role of the coach? Should he welcome back someone who has walked away?

Lots of questions. No easy answers. Food for thought.

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