Over the last few years, our family has witnessed some pretty poor behavior in the youth sports our kids are involved with. Coaches yelling at their kids, punching walls, trying to intimidate young referees, and engaging in shouting matches with other coaches. Kids mouthing off to coaches and parents, and treating less skilled players poorly.
And over what? A game, where kids should be having fun, getting some exercise, and learning to work with their peers by playing on a team.
But this year, it’s been an entirely different story for us.
Michael is in 4th grade; he began a love affair with basketball when he was about 3 years old. Started playing in the YMCA Kindergarten league when he was in Pre-K. Joined our in-town basketball program when it started in 2nd grade, and began talking that year about when he’d be able to try out for the town’s travel basketball program, which begins in 4th grade.
So at the end of this past summer, he started getting ready for the late September travel tryouts. On a Tuesday night, I brought him to the high school gym, where the kids participated in drills for hours. Michael loved it, and was thinking about the second tryout night the following week.
That Saturday, pitching in baseball game, Michael hurt his knee. He could still walk, but after an appointment with an orthopedist, he was told he couldn’t participate in any sports for 3 weeks, which included the second tryout. He went anyway, sat on the bench, and we hoped for the best.
By the time teams were announced a few weeks later, we learned that Michael’s knee injury was much worse than originally diagnosed; he’d torn his meniscus and ACL, had already had one outpatient surgery for his meniscus, and was going to require a second surgery to repair his ACL. Sports would be out for 9-12 months until he could fully recover.
We also learned that Michael had made the travel A team. So now what?
I checked in with the league director and Michael’s assigned coach, hoping that somehow, Michael could be a part of the team, knowing that he’d be completely laid up for a few weeks after surgery, and wouldn’t be able to play for the season. I was anxiously awaiting a reply the day of the uniform fitting; I heard back from his coach Don, who said he “didn’t think it would be a problem,” but I hadn’t heard from the league director, so I brought him to the uniform fitting, with fingers crossed.
The league director, Nick, made the connection when he saw a kid hobbling in on crutches, came over to introduce himself, and asked if we could speak privately. My stomach dropped. With some less than positive experiences we’d had in youth sports, I instinctively figured we’d be asked to leave, and I’d be left to console Michael on the way home.
Not even close. Nick had pulled me aside to let me know that if Michael wanted to be a part of the team to the extent that he could, that the league would only be able to provide a partial refund for the fee we’d paid for travel basketball. Really? With everything else we had on our plate with Michael’s injury, this was the least of our concerns. He shook Michael’s hand, and told him that he couldn’t wait to see him back on the court next year.
Elated, we returned to the team for the uniform fitting. Coach Don told Michael that he’d “earned his spot on this team,” and was as much a part of it as the rest of the boys. Don explained to the rest of the team what had happened to Michael, and even though he couldn’t play, this was his team too.
And it only got better.
When Michael went in for his ACL surgery, just after the season had started, the team sent a get-well card. Once he was able to get out a few weeks later, Michael went to as many home games and practices as he could fit in, between catching up with schoolwork, keeping up with physical therapy, and just recovering. Coach Don would have Michael lead the cheer for the team before games. Michael would keep stats on a white board. He’d learn the plays. He was as much a part of the team as he could be.
I should mention that things weren’t all great. Michael would look forward to the games, but sometimes, just before walking out the door to a game, he’d be inconsolable – because really, what 9-year-old wants to sit and watch other kids play the game that they love to play? But we’d get him into the car, and things would be okay, even if it was just while he was distracted by the game. And thank goodness for Dave. I went to one game, and had to leave after a few minutes. It was just too sad for me, watching these kids play basketball, and seeing Michael sitting on the bench, knowing this was what he’d wanted so badly.
Once Michael could stand, balanced, without his crutches, Dave would take him to team practices, and Michael would stand and shoot baskets at the other end of the court, while Dave rebounded the ball to him. One night, a teammate saw Michael hitting every shot, and the whole team came down and counted, as he sank 10 in a row. These kids got it. This was a big deal to Michael, and they were right there with him.
Fast forward to last night. The last regular season game. Michael is off crutches, in a smaller knee brace, and walking well. The team is up by 12 points, with less than a minute left. Bill, the assistant coach, asks Dave if they can put Michael in. Don calls a time out, they explain the situation to the other team and their coach – they can’t guard Michael, because he could get hurt. They start the clock again, roll the ball down the court to Michael, who makes a shot from the corner. It goes in. The team and the parents cheer. They get it. THIS is what youth sports is about.
The story won’t end here. Michael still has months of rehab, check-ins with the surgeons, and a “return to sport” physical therapy program that will hopefully get him ready for basketball next year. But in the meantime, he’s learned so much from this experience. And so have we. There’s hope, and there are great people in this world.