Editor’s Note: Muffet McGraw is the head women’s basketball coach at Notre Dame, where she has led her teams to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament eight times and won the national championship twice. The views expressed here are solely hers. View more opinion articles on CNN.
“Oh the times, they are a changin’.” Those words from a famous Bob Dylan song may not be something most people associate with college athletics, but they help illustrate a seismic shift in the way parents and kids view their athletic opportunities. Baby boomer parents who were “old school” have given way to Gen X parents who have sheltered their kids from disappointment, adversity and failure and by doing so have left them without the skills or toughness to navigate through life. This is a generation of kids who come to college having never learned the valuable lessons that failing teaches us.
Going from being the star on their high school team to the next level where everyone else is just as good, just as fast and just as strong, takes grit.
It can be a little overwhelming for the toughest kids but for those who aren’t equipped to handle adversity, it can be ego shattering. Before the dawn of social media, athletes new to college would line up at the pay phone in the dorm to call home for their weekly talk with mom and dad. They could vent their frustrations just to let their parents know how hard college was, and wonder out loud whether they made the right decision when choosing their school. Parents would listen and then give some life lessons about what it meant to make a commitment and how lucky they were to be going to school for free.
I’ve talked with a few Notre Dame basketball alums over the years and joked about how I didn’t know if they would come back after Christmas break their freshman year, and they laughed and said they didn’t want to, but mom and dad said, “Get in the car, we’re going back to finish what you started.” All of them agreed that getting this push from their parents was the best thing that could have happened to them. It motivated them to fight through adversity and to allow themselves to be pushed past what they thought they could achieve. They graduated with a more confident demeanor, and a sense of pride in their accomplishment, knowing they had the tools to weather whatever storm life had in store.
Fast forward to a generation who had cell phones in grade school and were told from birth how special they were. Everyone gets a trophy, because participation is valued more than performance. Some people believe we shouldn’t have all-star teams or pick an MVP because no one wants to see their son or daughter left out.
But I have been coaching kids for over 30 years, and I can tell you there’s a better way to teach kids how to handle adversity: Let them figure out for themselves that even if they’re not the best player on the team, their role is still important. Rather than transferring high schools or changing Amateur Athletic Union teams to find a place where they can be the biggest star, why not teach them about the value of being a small part of something big? Why not talk about the importance of developing mental toughness by working through some bumps in the road and the long-term benefit gained by learning early in life that sometimes you have to sacrifice “me” for “we”?
Playing a team sport teaches athletes so many important life lessons. Sure, it teaches you about winning, but winning isn’t really the point. Competing and giving it your best shot, that’s the point. Learning the value of a great work ethic, and never giving up – that’s the point. It teaches you that life isn’t fair and just because you go to practice every day doesn’t mean you will get to play in the game. It teaches you the value of sacrificing your individual goals for the good of the team, and that the ultimate goal is not how many points you score but whether the team wins. It teaches you that everything is not about you – and this is probably the most valuable lesson of all.
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I’ve had some alums relate some stories about the adversity they have overcome in their life since basketball – setbacks they have endured personally or in their families. They all are adamant that developing the strength and resilience to get through injuries and adversity in sport gave them the resolve they needed to overcome the hardships they experienced in later life.