Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Maybe Sports Ruin Character

In touting the benefits of martial arts - or sports in general - we often use the phrase, "It builds character. It will teach your child discipline."

Does it? I can certainly think of some dishonest, lazy, jerks I know in every martial art and sport I've ever experienced. Of course, I can think of some really good people in all of those, too.

A person less impervious to haters than me might just mouth some platitude like,

"Sports, like adversity, don't build character, they reveal it."

And leave it at that.

Personally, I think minor sports - like U.S. judo, all high school teams - can actually produce human beings with worse character.

Here is why - you have someone who, in the grand scheme of things, is not doing all that much. They are better at judo than the other 20 or 30  junior players in the country at their weight who care enough to bother training seriously. They are a better football player than the other 30 kids in their school they beat out for that position. You get the idea. They are certainly something, but they are not brilliant or talented beyond all others.

Let's take judo as an example, not that it is special in this regard but it is something I have a lot of experience with. You have a kid who is ten years old, matures a little early for his age, has parents who take him to extra practices in addition to his own club. With a combination of a little extra training and a little extra physical development, he beats the three other kids in his division at a local tournament. The next month, he beats the same three kids, plus a new white belt kid that joined.

His parents take him to all of the tournaments - all nine a year in the area - and then to the national championships, where he gets a bye the first round, wins three matches and is the national champion.

This can go on for a few years and our little guy is now the three-time national champion. What has he done, really? He's worked out maybe three times a week, probably not that hard (come on, he's ten) and beaten a total of perhaps two dozen kids, several of whom have been in judo for six months or less at the time he fought them. However, everyone is super-excited to have a three-time national champion at their club.

All of this is good, working out three times a week, winning versus losing, all good. The problem is that Junior now goes around with the attitude that he is a THREE-TIME NATIONAL CHAMPION. He tells you that. His coach tells you that. His parents tell you that.

If he doesn't want to learn a new technique, he doesn't have to because, as his coach explains,
"He's three-time national champion, he must be doing something right."

His parents send him to international tournaments in South America, where he places third in a division of seven. Two of the kids in his division are green belts and had to borrow gis to compete, but no matter, he is now an INTERNATIONAL MEDALIST. He certainly doesn't feel the need to listen to any old coaches or instructors. After all, even if they were international medalists, it was long ago.

Kids who start at 13 or 14 and maybe even train seriously still lose to Junior because by now he has a four-year head start on them.

Eventually, though, it falls apart. Those kids who started younger and trained seriously catch up. Those kids who matured late and who were weaker and smaller than him are now grown and can put up a fight. Junior is getting bored. He hasn't learned that much in the last couple of years, just doing his favorite technique. He places second, and then third in some of the tournaments. Sometimes he doesn't place at all. Eventually he loses interest in competing. Maybe he goes back to his old club as an instructor, where he tells every new student that he was a THREE-TIME NATIONAL CHAMPION and INTERNATIONAL MEDALIST. Now he is in a position of authority because he is a BLACK BELT which he received because of his tournament record.

What has Junior learned, really? That you can get an impressive title without doing all that terribly much work. That you can get away with being dismissive to your elders if you have mediocre accomplishments? That if you get a head start in life, you can coast for a long time? That you can get a permanent symbol of authority even with only minor knowledge?

It's like the guy who played football in high school and is still telling everyone in the same hometown bar about the time he scored the winning touchdown that brought their school the Class B state championships - and he's 40 years old.

I just can't help but feel if he'd built up all that much character he would have come up with something more worth talking about in the last 22 years.

I'm NOT saying that sports don't often build strong bodies and good people. Obviously, I believe that or I would not still be coaching.

What I am saying is that it doesn't always turn out that way. Sometimes sports can make your kid into a worse person than he would have been otherwise.

Now, isn't that a cheery  thought?


robthornton72 said...

Everything you said is why I have a problem with the concept of the current National Championships for Juniors, much less anything on an international level. The minimum age I think should exist for a National Championship should be 14 or 15. Any younger than that, and most of the kids aren't even using the same bodies they'll use as an adult. It makes absolutely no sense to claim a national championship as a 10-year old, much less an 8-year old or a 6-year old.

Dr. AnnMaria said...

Rob -
I completely agree. The first time Ronda competed in junior nationals she was 12. Didn't seem to hurt her career not starting at 6 or 8.

Hunter's Dad said...

Dr. Rousey DeMars, I'm interested in your advice. I have a 5 year old son and I'd like to expose him to Judo. We live in Topanga Canyon. Is 5 too young? What is important. Do you know anyone in the Woodland Hills area? I'd be delighted to speak with you. Than you.

My name is Greg Bennett
310-396-8000 (days)

dsimon3387 said...

a famous pitcher for the Phillies, His name escapes me... Told how he requested that his son play softball and not compete in Babe Ruth league baseball. He didn't want to expose his son to the BS you speak of Dr M. Real competition is divine, parents ego driven baggage is ugly.

jcp said...

Perhaps.. so the alternative is wrestling? I assume the talent pools would be deeper so the kids would have to work harder.

robthornton72 said...

JCP, to me the same principle applies. At that age, it is not practical on a long-term physical or emotional level to even have national or higher championships. A 8-year old national champion will not be inhabiting the body of even a well-developed 18 year old. Instill the training, spend that weekend drilling with them and focus on creating stability at that point instead of meaningless wins.

Sylver said...

One can get stuck in a win just as much as one can get stuck on a loss.

Some guy does well as a saleman or metal worker or what's not, and 30 years later he'll still tell you all about how back in the days, he was one of the best... same story.

It happens, obviously, but it's not limited to sport, so it's doubtful that sport is responsible for someone turning out that way.

I think that sport presents an opportunity to build character, both for the teacher and the athlete because it simplifies the problem. Instead of dealing with life as a whole, its complexities, its near infinite number of players, its rules which are for the most part unknown, etc.

In sport, you try something and it doesn't work, you get a chance to go right back and try again in a context which is so similar that his actions are the only variables that matter. You can quickly iterate through the trial and error process until you find something workable.

Similarly, a coach can identify a problem, correct it and observe whether or not the correction worked.

Sport provides a controlled environment to learn/teach valuable character building lessons.

It can be used to teach persistance, respect, fairness, humility... or it can be used to teach someone to cheat, to belittle, to act like a primadona, etc.

In itself, sport is a good testing ground, and used well, can produce great results.

Dr. AnnMaria said...

I completely agree that sort CAN have great positive effects, but I take issue with the assumption that it necessarily does or even that it usually does. As you say, it depends greatly on the setting.

Greg -
Whether five is too young depends on your son, but I would put him in swimming if I were you, or just run around with him at the park. He's five.