For Building Up Young People, Nothing Beats Athletic Competition

IT'S NOT ONLY ABOUT KEEPING SCORE: Athletic competition gives young people such as Elizabeth Gutermann opportunities to hone skills and develop self-esteem.
IT'S NOT ONLY ABOUT KEEPING SCORE: Athletic competition gives young people such as Elizabeth Gutermann opportunities to hone skills and develop self-esteem. (By John Squire)
By Lenny Bernstein
Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Elizabeth Gutermann can barely remember a time when she wasn't competing. She joined a club swim team at 8, and by age 13 she was practicing eight times a week. Some workouts were so arduous that her coach left buckets at the end of each lane for swimmers to vomit in.

She enjoyed considerable success -- she holds three records at the Montgomery County neighborhood pool where I also swim -- but paid a high price: In her early teens she often felt physically sick and mentally exhausted. When she failed to live up to her own expectations, she developed a temper. Even coaches were hesitant to talk to her after a bad race.

At 15, she gave up competitive swimming for coaching, drastically reducing the demands on herself in favor of teaching others. "The year I traded swimming for coaching, I realized it wasn't about me, and I could pass on my love for the sport to other kids," recalled Gutermann, now 18 and a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin. "I could still enjoy the sport even though I wasn't the best anymore."

Had Gutermann simply matured and developed a new perspective on her life's endeavor? To what extent had her involvement in sports and fitness helped her grow up, providing clarity about what really mattered to her?

If you're a parent, you know there's no clear answer to such questions. The important thing, of course, is what Gutermann learned through participation and competition, by trying and failing to live up to the goals she had set for herself, and by finding another path in life.

With schools reopening, the high school sports pages soon will be dominated by the ferocity of athletic competition, by wins and losses and point totals, by the occasional abuse of the rules in pursuit of victory.

The other 99.9 percent of us -- kids and parents alike -- will not see our reality reflected anywhere. Our kids will chase soccer balls and footballs without a prayer of making the local paper or winning a scholarship. Yet as parents have known for ages, the true value of competitive sports and personal fitness regimens is what youngsters take with them when they leave the field. And when they leave home.

In controlled circumstances and measured doses, competition provides so much more than fun and exercise. It teaches kids how far they are willing to push themselves, how to win and lose with class and how to perform under pressure. They encounter, and cope with, disappointment. They meet and bond with other competitors, or kids who share the same interest, in a way that other activities can't match. They learn the importance of teamwork. They develop leadership skills. And they may find that special coach who becomes a role model, a mentor, a lifelong friend.

* * *

"How do you know when the track team has held a wild party in your house?" I asked my wife a couple of years ago.


"You come home Sunday morning and the place is littered with Gatorade bottles."

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