Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Seeking our truest, strongest, deepest self: William James and commitment in youth sports

During the past year I’ve thought an awful lot about commitment, especially what it means for youth sport athletes. In this time our oldest son (now 15) has moved from an assortment of activities – running, basketball, football, and volleyball – in order to focus on his sport of choice, which is soccer. He has gradually immersed himself in the practice tradition with hopes to see just how good he can become.

His decision brings to mind a passage from philosopher William James. In Psychology: The Briefer Course, James writes: “So the seeker of his truest, strongest, deepest self must review the list carefully, and pick out the one on which to stake his salvation. All other selves thereupon become unreal, but the fortunes of this self are real.” James was an unabashed advocate of the “strenuous life” which included a modicum of potential risk and precipitousness. To this point, a youth sport athlete commitment to a single sport exemplifies the kind of strenuous life James had in mind which could potentially lead to a life of significance.

James’ quote raises a number of pertinent questions not only for youth sport athletes, but for their parents and guardians, coaches and youth sport administrators as well. For example, what does it mean for youth sport athletes to seek out this truest, strongest, and deepest self? At what point in terms of physiological and psychological development are they capable of making a fully informed decision? If these athletes decide to specialize on one sport, are their potential risks related their own health? Similarly, to what extent does specialization potentially bring about risks related to academic success, the development of social relationships, or the potential of becoming self-absorbed and/or tunnel-minded? Finally, by virtue of choosing only one sport, what is the potential loss (and gain) in terms of other experiences?

Given the limited scope of this post, I’ll take up just one question related to James’ quote. When youth sport athletes choose to commit themselves to soccer (or basketball, tennis, or any other sport) we hope this commitment involves the athlete’s truest, strongest, deepest self, as opposed to a self which is projected by the parents. When children are forced into a sports commitment, they may end up hating the sport or the parent(s) or both. Conversely, when children become gradually immersed in the sport practice community, developing their own agency in addition to skill acquisition and friendships, they potentially develop a lifelong love affair with their sport of choice.

Making a commitment, or deciding to specialize on one particular sport, requires a deliberate focus on one pursuit, but at the same time pushes aside alternative experiences and, potentially, relationships. Athletes of all ages and levels need to be wary that the pursuit of excellence, in the form of commitment is not without inherent risk, ones that would cause concern, even for William James. As Rick Reilly, columnist for ESPN the Magazine wrote recently, “The price of greatness is more than you want to pay. The world's most legendary athletes are usually the ones most wildly out of balance. . . Andre Agassi grieves, to this day, the childhood he gave up while hitting over a million practice balls. Enjoy your heroes, but don't envy them.” Our own commitments, and those of our children and other youngsters, bring about both opportunities and consequences. We are prudent to think carefully, and help the youth in our purview do the same, as we consider our commitments to sport.

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