medalIn grade five, I was one of two kids to be cut from the 30 + student cross-country team. I am fairly certain the other was a smoker. I watched the race and saw my friends cross the finish line, hugging each other. It felt terrible.

On the Deep River Discussion forum this week, a dad was concerned that his kids likewise did not make the cross-country cut. The kids had tried hard but were not quite fast enough. He asked, is it appropriate to leave young kids out of school teams?  We have two competing sides.

TEAM 1 – LET EM PLAY: Only 30% of school sports is about the specific sport itself, in my non-expert opinion. The rest? Socializing, school pride, trips, health, physical activity, teamwork and leadership. In school, you can put a ball through a hoop/in a net/past the touchdown line hundreds of times, sure. I bet that what you remember more, however, was the team you were with, the memories of trips, and the exhilaration of exercise and pushing yourself past what you thought you could do. Looking at all the great benefits of elementary and high school sports teams, the answer seems obvious: everybody gets a turn, nobody gets cut! Flowers and rainbows all around!

TEAM 2 – KICK EM OUT: Without a low there is no high. Without an in there is no out. And without the possibility of failure, success does not taste as sweet. The participation-ribbon mentality, it seems, might discourage the internal motivation to push one’s self to the limit. If everybody succeeds in school, kids may not be prepared for the inevitability of failure later in life. Setting the goal of qualifying for a team is a great exercise for kids, particularly when the goal is harder to attain. Would you really run eight laps around the school everyday if you knew you could still make the team eating Oreos instead? Life is hard. Sports are hard. School is a great time to learn the importance of attempting goals even if you might not succeed.

To be entirely honest, when I read the Deep River Discussion post, I had my thumbs poised to talk about the importance of failure, the lessons learned in goal-setting, and the value of qualifying for a group you worked hard for. But I paused: that was my experience.

School sports need to be considered in context: not everyone comes to the tryouts with the same background. A friend of mine reminded me that, when she came to St. Mary’s in grade 7 from St. Anthony’s, she and her Chalk River friends had much less exposure to sports within their curriculum. Even within school classes, we understand some kids are provided with expensive gear, summer sports, and sports camps while others may not. This is the gap that kids come to school with. The gap is further widened when the school sports team only trains the kids who out-compete their peers. Teams also serve as a social net to facilitate friendships and bonding. Kids who are cut will necessarily miss-out on the high of competition, the comradery in the locker room, and the pride of being a part of something bigger.

Elementary school should be a place of opportunities and a place of learning. To meet both objectives, an alternative solution must be reached. Young kids have almost no control over their lives: they don’t make money, they are always in someone’s custody, they basically go where you put them. The consequences of being excluded from the team are too harsh for kids who have little control over how much they can work towards a goal. The solution needs to be a compromise. Having a B-Team and an A-Team for every sport ensures that everyone can participate in the B-Team, while those who are most competitive have the opportunity to further excel and qualify for an A-Team. Sport participation can be non-binary, inclusive and still fun.

After I did not make the team in grade five, I was devastated. I began to run again 13 years later, in the company of friends, my dog, and running groups (none of whom dared kick me out for being too slow!). It was not the fear of not keeping up with the group that motivated me to work harder, but their unconditional support. As I became a stronger and better athlete, the possibility of qualifying for the Canadian Age Group Triathlon Team did motivate me. The potential for failing heightened the stakes and pushed me further.

Last week, at 33, I raced against women from around the world at the International Triathlon Union World Triathlon Championship in Rotterdam. I felt proud to be a part of a great group of athletes representing Canada. Many women on the team likewise were not high school athletes. We shared stories, experienced a new city, met other amateur athletes from around the world, and pushed ourselves to new levels on a gruelling course. As I crossed the finish line, I realized I had hit the goal I had set for myself in grade five: I finally made the team, I ran the race.


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