John F. Russell: Learning for high school sports

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— Sometimes sports are about playing a game, the final score and whether you win or lose the big game.

But I have to think that sports not always are about winning. Maybe it’s because I’m a longtime fan of the Denver Broncos, or maybe I just want to think we play sports for more than just the final score.

Last week in Pueblo, 144 young players from across the state reminded me that there is more to sports than just winning a championship for your school. At the end of the 2010 State 4A Boys Tennis Championships, only 11 players (three singles players and four doubles teams) reached their goal of winning a state title along with one team.

When the tournament came to an end, the remaining players went home without titles, but they didn’t go home empty-handed.

The athletes left the tournament with the understanding that sports really are about personal accomplishment. They learned how to set goals and how to pursue those goals, and they learned that winning is difficult and important — but not as important as the impressions they left on their teammates, their opponents and the fans who came out to watch the tournament.

The truth is that winning a title is a fleeting moment in the big picture that is life and that most athletes will forget the final scores long before than return to the field, or the court, for another match.

Not all of the lessons are pretty, but they are important. Some of the lessons are obvious and easy to see for the players on the court and the spectators off the court. But many of the lessons are personal and not as easy to see from the outside. Some will not be fully realized for years.

There are times, as an adult, when I forget that the high school athletic field or court is like any other classroom. But it’s a classroom not all that different from the ones you would expect to find inside the walls of the Steamboat Springs High School. It’s a place where athletes are tested and graded, and their final mark rarely is reflected in the final score.

The problem is that so many of us base our love of sports on professional teams and professional athletes — athletes who are paid to win games, paid to bring home championships and paid to be the best athlete, not the best person.

The final score determines professional athletes’ success, and where their team finished in the standings at the end of the season is typically reflected in their paycheck. In most cases, the professional is rewarded for the number of points, the number of tackles and the number of titles they can deliver. Their lives off the field seem to have little bearing on their success unless they become a major distraction.

A high school athlete’s success needs to be looked at differently, and it should never be measured simply by the final score.

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