“I was wired to compete. I think this can be a very useful personality trait in life.” said Dena Evans, a former soccer player, runner and coach at Stanford, as she spoke with me over the phone. As the coach of the Cross Country team for such a competitive program, Evans has seen firsthand the importance of teens developing competitiveness through sports and how it increases success later in life. But what about those of us who aren’t wired to compete? Being a soccer player myself here at Vassar, I often reflect upon how my training and mentality as a teen lead me to where I am now. Unlike Evans, I was never wired to compete at an early age, yet this changed over the course of countless soccer practices, games and team events through the years. Now I love going into tackles on the field, but more importantly, I love competing against myself.
In today’s sports world, the participatory ideal and the competitive ideal are frequently separated and are rarely linked together. Many parents involve their children in sports at an early age, typically soccer, softball, basketball and, if they are brave: football. But only a small percentage goes on to compete in high school, and fewer yet in college. This is unfortunate because as Evans puts it, “Continuing to play a sport into high school can be a really great laboratory for developing relationship skills, work ethic, and time management.” In building the drive to continue a sport, it is crucial to begin with the participatory ideal. Although I wasn’t originally focused on winning soccer games when my career began, the bonds I had formed with my teammates propelled me to become competitive and fight for them on the field. The competitive ideal then proved to take root once I had become part of something bigger than myself.
This is not to say that sports are the only avenue to developing into a successful person, and Evans agrees with that sentiment, “There is value in doing something and doing it really well. Whether it is ballet, playing the flute or being a stage actress.” However, she also notes, “There is nothing wrong with making the choice to do only one thing. That way, you can do it to the best of your ability.” So why do young athletes spread themselves so thin with an excess of activities, eventually quitting their sport to lower their stress level? Perhaps it is to lower the stakes. Although this mentality may be subconscious, it is ever-present in a person’s sense of self-worth and desire to succeed.
In middle school, I played soccer, basketball and piano. All three combined, my energy was divided and the quality of my investment in each suffered. Hence, I wasn’t able to reach my potential in either three activities. However, I made the decision to only play soccer in high school, which raised my overall sporting competitiveness because the stakes were raised much higher. This scenario happens frequently among young athletes who overstretch themselves, leaving them frustrated that they aren’t reaching the level of success they want. My advice: Explore your interests, then pick one or two, and hone in on those activities. This will allow your time to be spent more efficiently and the rewards will be greater.
Evans has seen what separates the good athlete from the great athlete, and her belief is that the difference is centered around courage and belief; “You have to be willing to put yourself out there and once you’re out there, you need the courage to finish what you started. That chasm is pretty deep and scary to cross for many, but the successful athletes can overcome that.” This mentality must begin at a young age, and what better way to learn than through sports, where you can compete within a support system of teammates?
When recruiting for her cross-country team at Stanford, Evans looked for athletes who have taken advantage of opportunities to compete within a team during middle and high school. For Evans, this demonstrated that the athlete could be more elite in the future, having already learned how to succeed and raise the level of those around them. Looking at the big picture, Evans notes “That’s the type of thing that translates to success later in life. Learning how to succeed individually while also raising the level of the boat around you.” Although running is an individual sport, the period of adolescence is crucial in forming these skills, which high school and middle school sports teams can provide.
Many athletes do not continue with their sport for fear of failure to become elite in accordance to a timeline set by coaches and past successes in their sport. But this timeline is a myth Dena observes, “There are a lot of good runners who do not have linear paths to their peak performance. Many runners who start off the fastest in high school freshman and sophomore year don’t end up being the fastest in college.” If young athletes were aware of this reality, they would be more willing to allow the early stages of their training to be used more effectively to target character development in addition to athletic development.
The participatory ideal during adolescence will eventually shift into a more competitive ideal with time, but the two will never separate once experienced. That’s the beauty of being an athlete; the lessons learned are never forgotten because they form a lifestyle. Having already focused on the team and the participation aspect at an early age, a competitive drive to succeed for self and others is now second nature. With these skills in hand, the athlete can enter the life’s court ready to dominate.