Woolard’s Words: The bane of being a specialized athlete

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When I was in 8th grade I quit all my other sports and activities to pursue basketball. 

At the time I had been around club basketball for a few years and I had reached the point where I needed to commit hours and hours in order to keep my head above water. 

So I quit everything. Anything that took away from my time to play basketball was out the door. I was no longer an athlete but a basketball player. I based my entire identity on basketball and basketball alone. And it sucked. 

For the next few years I devoted my life to basketball. Since I dedicated all of my time to getting better at basketball, I got a lot better. Seeing improvement was awesome. I fell in love with the game of basketball and took every opportunity to get better. I was going to practice for like two hours a day everyday. I was playing games on the weekends. During the summer, I would go to week long overnight camps the entire summer. All I did was practice.

I embodied the phrase ball is life. I started using utensils with my left hand in order to build up strength and control that would transition onto the basketball court. I didn’t have any other hobbies or do anything else really. 

It was super unhealthy. I had put all of my identity into basketball. By only seeing myself as a basketball player I evaluated my self worth by my basketball performance. So when basketball wasn’t going well, I wasn’t doing well.

By my sophomore year things had gotten pretty bad. Our team had trouble winning games, I didn’t play a whole ton and we had a very toxic team dynamic. But once basketball season ended I had a brilliant idea to try a new sport, golf. I picked golf because it was the only spring sport that I had any experience in. That season was so fun and I honestly don’t even like golf that much. For once I felt like I could breathe. Once I removed myself from basketball it was a game changer. It was so nice and refreshing to just do something else.

Eventually, I was thrown back into club basketball. The club season between my sophomore and junior year was the most fun playing sports I’ve ever had. My team was the best, I loved my coach, I just loved playing. Being removed from the basketball environment, even for just a month or so, helped me to appreciate the game a lot more once I got back.

That didn’t last long. My junior season wasn’t fun. Our team never got along, we weren’t winning, I desperately wanted more playing time and still don’t understand why I didn’t get it. To put it bluntly, I was miserable. Towards the end of the season, I didn’t even want to play. Literally when I was on the bench all I could think in my head was “please don’t put me in” It was hard to watch a game I used to love turn into the thing I hated the most.

Regardless, I still wanted to play club in the summer. I loved my experience before and was convinced that maybe this was just a bad season. I showed up to the first weekend of club practice and it was disappointing. I just didn’t enjoy it. This club was the single greatest environment I had been in at the time. I loved everyone there, and I had an amazing experience last year. I was convinced that if I didn’t like basketball in that environment then I wasn’t going to like it anywhere else.

So I quit. It was one of the single most freeing things I’ve ever done. Not having to spend all my weekends at practice and not playing tournaments in the summer gave me a new sense of joy. Finally this game that had taken my life for all these years was gone.

Committing myself to only playing basketball was one of the worst decisions I’ve ever made. But I shouldn’t have had to make it. Nowadays coaches don’t want athletes. They want kids that play their sport and only their sport. Optional off season training and practices aren’t so “optional” anymore. Youth sports have become a cutthroat operation where you must hand over everything in order to even make a team.

I recognized that in 8th grade. Becoming a specialized athlete has destroyed any love that I once had for the game of basketball. It got to the point where I not only wasn’t having fun, I actively despised one of the things that once made me the happiest.

No one wants to watch something they love turn into something they hate. Sports are supposed to be fun. And they can be. Youth sports culture needs to change. At the end of the day it’s just a game, not a lifestyle.