In football, as in life, Chicago Bears Safety Danieal Manning
says, there are ups and downs, good days and bad days.
What matters is how you play the game.
"You just have to stay dedicated and know the ultimate goal and
get everyone in your family or on your team on the right path and
the right page," he says.
Parents, says Bears' tight end Desmond Clark, are the coordinators
of their children's game plan for life.
"If the kid can go out like a player and execute the parents' game
plan, usually the things will turn out all right, just like in a
football game," he says.
It doesn't matter whether your youngsters are in sports, drama
club, debate team or math bowl. Parents and coaches call the
signals that shape the life lessons kids take away from the
There's plenty kids can learn from competitive activities, says
Gloria Balague, a sports psychologist at University of Illinois at
Here's the page of the playbook to mark: They can discover
constructive ways of looking at life and affirmative ways of
understanding themselves. Or they can take in destructive messages
that foster disrespect and over-emphasize winning at all costs.
Meredith Sinclair offers a mom's view
The key is to make sure the kids are getting the right lessons
from their activities-be it football, gymnastics, ballet or beauty
pageants-and not the wrong ones, Balague says.
If mom's first question when Johnny walks through the door is "Did
you win?" or "Did you make a touchdown?" the lesson is that winning
and being the star is the most important thing.
If the question is "Did you play hard?" or "Did you support your
teammates?" the lesson is that trying your best and being a loyal
team member is what counts.
If parents berate a coach or complain because their player sat on
the bench, the message is "I should always get my way whether I
deserve it or not."
If the coach is committed to calling out the best in kids,
competitive sports are a positive training field for life. If the
coach goes all boot camp drill sergeant on them, it can foul a
young person's confidence and self-esteem, Balague says.
"Kids can learn a lot of good through playing competitive sports
like football," she says. "It's up to the coach and parents to
follow the rules and keep things in the right perspective."
That's what Joliet Catholic Academy Coach Dan Sharp hopes he
accomplishes with his players-and his own son. In a reverse play,
Sharp was the receiver of the lesson his son tossed his way.
Over the years, Sharp watched his only son grow up on the
gridiron. Since he was a little boy, Danny had shaped himself for a
future in football. As a senior, Danny was the team captain and
college recruiters had him in their sights. But a ripped ligament
in his knee left him watching his teammates take the state
championship from the bench.
"I saw Danny's ability to be strong for his teammates from the
bench, to overcome the grief and overwhelming disappointment he was
feeling," says Sharp, head football coach and athletic director at
JCA, the state's biggest title winner with 13 division
"He showed me you can't dwell on the bad things that happen. You
have to accept what you get and move on."
Tony Lopez introduces players as young as 5 to the gridiron
through the Swarm's Tiny Mites in Darien. It's a way to get little
tykes to focus and take direction, the coach says.
They learn how to respect adults and they get Team Work 101, he
"They learn that they can trust the guy next to them to do their
job," Lopez says.
Traveling and interacting with other teams from culturally diverse
neighborhoods fosters tolerance and acceptance of people who are
different from them, says Lopez, 44, a father of five.
Coach Aaron O'Neill coaches the Eagles, inner city seventh- and
eighth-graders at the National Teachers Academy, a kindergarten
through eighth-grade school on Chicago's South Side. His approach,
called Teaching Responsibly through Physical Activity, stresses
taking responsibility, fostering respect for the rights and
feelings of others, self-motivation, cooperation, self-direction
and helping others.
Like Balague, O'Neill knows kids can intercept productive values
from team sports. Or they can learn self-defeating lessons if the
focus is only on winning.
When winning is all-important, it can hurt a boy's respect for
himself and others, O'Neill says.
"The idea that the other team is the enemy rather than a respected
opponent can lead to divisive consequences," he says.
"Us-against-them adds one more classification that teaches people
to separate themselves-gender, race, economic status, religion,
At NTA, the messages are about life on and off the field. Passing
grades and turning in homework assignments are a prerequisite to
being an Eagle.
Marcus Lyons, 13, was flunking everything until he became an Eagle
in seventh grade. This year he's getting B's. He hopes to go to
college and then become a Chicago Bear.
"Football is teaching me to be a young man, preparing me to go on
to school," he says.
So far, he's on a winning team. The Eagles defeated the three-time
defending champion Dodge Academy to win its first title last
Robyn Monaghan is a mother and long-time journalist.
See more of Robyn's stories here.
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