Is there a better tool than youth sports for helping our children build confidence, develop social skills, and learn life lessons?

I would argue that youth sports are close to the top of the list. There are several other things necessary to prepare our kids for adulthood, obviously. Nothing replaces strong parenting at home, or a quality education. And a strong church home, especially one with an active and quality youth program, is vitally important for Christian youngsters.

But right behind all three of those things is youth sports.

A lot of people — almost always people who have never participated in sports, and whose kids don’t participate in sports — argue that our culture places too much emphasis on sports. At some levels, I agree. Why are professional athletes among America’s highest-paid workers? Why do professional athletes command such celebrity status that we hang on to every word they have to say about our president, our social issues, and our culture in general?

But at the amateur level, I would argue right back — for every person who says there’s too much emphasis placed on youth sports, I would point to a kid who could use more youth sports in their life.

I used to drive past the Boys & Girls Club in Oneida on Saturday afternoons during basketball season, see the vehicles parked all the way to the curb and say, “I’m glad that’s not me!”

And, now, I spend hours at the club every weekend, watching games that don’t even involve myself or my kids. If I’ve coached a kid in the past, I enjoy watching them play. My kids want to watch their friends play. And the games quickly add up.

It was always obvious that my son loved the game of basketball. From the time he was old enough to pick up a ball, he was shooting hoops. I never encouraged him to take up the game, but I didn’t have to. As a pre-kindergarten student, he showed an interest in basketball that none of his classmates showed. Even at that young age, he could get the ball to the rim on a 10-ft. goal. His teacher told him he reminded her a lot of her son — who just happened to be a standout post player in high school.

My son idolized the high school kid. He never missed a game, and even wanted his own No. 15 jersey so he could pretend to be the same player at home. The high school kid was kind enough to reciprocate by showing a little attention to my son — thanking him for attending games, and encouraging him. When the player — Oneida High School’s Jake Wright — signed a letter of intent to continue his playing days at the collegiate level, Toby was invited to attend the signing ceremony. What he didn’t know was that he would be invited to sit at the table with Jake and have his photo taken. It made his day. Heck, it made his year.

Along the way, my son went from having a casual interest in the game of basketball to living, eating and breathing the sport. To make up for the decidedly unathletic genes he inherited from his father, he spent hours watching YouTube videos, picking up on ways to dribble the ball better, shoot the ball better, and rebound the ball better. And he always had a competitive drive to get better. With excellent coaching from some dedicated individuals, he was invited to play travel basketball after the rec league season was finished, which further cemented his love for the game.

I never encouraged any of it, but I never discouraged any of it, either. Eventually, he would also take up an interest in soccer. Then my daughter, whose love for soccer was always first, decided she wanted to play basketball. And now my son wants to play baseball.

That brings us to the present. As winter slowly gives way to spring, Toby is in his third season of AAU basketball. Rachel practices with an AAU team — she doesn’t play, but we try to go to their games when we can so she can watch her friends play. Both are at the age to where their AYSO soccer teams are travel teams rather than local teams. Both will also play tournament soccer this spring. And, now, Toby will add baseball to the list. To say it’s a hectic schedule is a colossal understatement. Between school, church and sports, the only time the entire family is home at the same time is usually right at bedtime.

I know some parents who tell their kids to pick one sport and stick with it, or won’t let them play any sport at all. I don’t fault that, because some parents can’t make the time commitment to get their kids to and from practices and games — not to mention the costs that inevitably add up over the course of a season.

But my approach has always been to tell my kids to play any sport they want to play. The only requirement? Once you commit to it, you’re committed to it for the duration. No quitting.

Yes, there are sacrifices that are made. Families with active kids sacrifice a lot to accommodate their kids. I used to spend my spring weekends turkey hunting. That was my favorite pastime. I haven’t turkey-hunted in four years now, because I spend my spring Saturdays at soccer games or basketball games.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way. The benefits are too invaluable.

In youth sports, there are life lessons in every practice and in every game. Some are easy — the importance of dedication, of commitment, of teamwork, of getting along well with others. How to be humble in victory and gracious in defeat.

Then there are some that are tougher to accept, though no less important. Like shouldering blame, owning your failures, and handling adversity with a winning attitude.

These are the things that youth sports teach you, and that’s why youth sports better prepare our kids to be the young adults that they’re quickly becoming, whether we want them to or not.

Beyond all that, youth sports make our kids more social — teaching them how to interact with others, how to work with others, how to get along with others. My kids have made friends they wouldn’t have made, otherwise — kids who go to other elementary schools now but who they will eventually go to high school with. The friendships transcend the basketball court, or the soccer field. They cheer for one another during the games. They stay in touch after the seasons are over.

My kids’ network of friends extends well beyond their own school and their own grade, thanks to sports. One thing you can never have too many of in life is friends — as long as they’re good people. So far, at least, my kids seem to have had the good sense to surround themselves with good kids and avoid the troublemakers. They have non-sports friends at school, of course, but most of their friends are the ones they’ve made on the court and on the field. That isn’t a bad thing.

Youth sports also encourages good grades, and good behavior. As long as our kids know bad grades and bad behavior will limit their playing time, or force them out of sports altogether, sports can be a powerful incentive. This is true at the youth level, and only becomes more of an influence as our kids grow to the age of middle school and high school.

And don’t think it isn’t enriching for the adults, as well. Sure, we make a lot of sacrifices — both of our time and of our finances — to allow our kids to play sports. We sit on the sidelines when we could easily be doing something else, we travel here and yonder and all over creation to get them to their games, and during the ball season (which seems to pretty much be year-round), we essentially forfeit a life of our own.

Yet, we also broaden our circle of friends as we form bonds with other parents who are making the same sacrifices we are. And just as our kids are forming friendships that will last well beyond their playing days, so are their parents.

That’s why, if my kids come to me and tell me they want to play youth sports, I will never say, “no.” My answer will always be, “If you’re committed, let’s sign up.”

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Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com. Follow him on Twitter, @benwgarrett.