High school sports are about more than the scoreboard. They’re about learning how to deal with the world and what it throws at you.
Beneath the Surface is peeling back the layers of this onion we call sports.
As a sophomore in high school, I was competing for the starting job as our second basemen. I was smaller than most everyone on the team and slower, but I had an excellent set of hands. There weren’t many balls hit at me that didn’t get gobbled up by my medium-sized Mizuno glove. The problem was, I couldn’t hit. I couldn’t see breaking balls as they were spinning from the pitcher’s fingers. I could hit a fastball if that’s what I was expecting, but unless I knew a breaking ball was coming, I’d whiff it almost every time.
I remember one evening toward the end of practice, we’d been working on pick-off plays. My competitor and I were sparring back and forth for the spot. I ran two plays in a row, and I was late to getting to the bag both times. Coach’s face was scrunching up, and he was writhing his hands at the end of the second play. His frustration had reached its peak.
“This play is 90 percent effort! And you are about 88 percent short!” He screamed at me from across the infield.
I felt defeated. Hard work was the only thing I had out there. My face was dripping, and my arms were covered in a raw mixture of sweat and dust. I was oozing hard work. What else could I do?
My Coach wasn’t talking about physical effort. He was talking about mental. That moment has stuck with me for the last 11 years. I’m pretty sure it always will.
Here are the top five ways my times as a high school athlete shaped me as a man:
1. I learned what it meant to not be as talented as everyone else.
I had the good fortune of being on a good baseball team. My sophomore and junior year combined, we only lost six games (two of which were the finals of the regional tournament). My junior year we had four players in the senior class play Division 1 baseball (one of them went on to play at Marshall), which was incredible for our small school. Most all of my teammates were taller, bigger, faster, and stronger than I was. All that did was fuel me to work harder than everyone else. I was never considered a top five player on the team, but I got my playing time. And I only got it because I was always the first one at practice and the last one to leave. When you aren’t as talented as everyone else, it doesn’t mean you blindly move on. You just have to outwork them.
2. I learned what it meant to push your body and your mind beyond your limits.
It’s easy to disregard high school sports as something fun you did if you weren’t one of the lucky ones to advance to collegiate sports, but it’s more than that. When I showed up to basic training for the military, I realized I already knew what it was like to be physically exhausted and still have work to get done. As we would leave the firing range at 5 PM and still have to walk six miles back to our barracks, I remembered the sprints we’d have to do after beating our cross-town rivals by ten runs. I thought of the times I stayed late to take extra ground balls. All of those early Saturday mornings as a kid added up to a work ethic I wouldn’t have had without baseball.
3. I learned what it meant to duke it out with someone in practice and then slap his hand when he crosses the plate.
This is crucial because teamwork is often looked at as competition in the workplace. It was in sports as well, but there’s also the sense that what’s best for the individual isn’t always (or ever) best for the team. When I was slugging it out to earn playing time I would frequently be pissed off at the guy playing over me, but I had to suck up my pride and slap his hand when he jacked a three-run homer. It’s the same as being a man. More times than not you have to shed your pride in order to do what’s right.
4. I learned what it meant to win.
Winning feels great. It validates your hard work and dedication to improving. It motivates and gives you reason to keep pushing further and further into the unknown of what you can accomplish both as an individual and as a team. Winning is what drives the train and elevates your future, but winning can also be a place for complacency and laziness. Understanding this balance is a life-long journey. If it weren’t for high school sports, I’d have gotten a late start on this education.
5. I learned what it meant to lose.
Losing hurts. Doesn’t matter if it’s by one run or by 10. The feeling of walking off the field and not having accomplished the goal you set makes you feel like a failure, and it’s crippling. The truth is, you’re going to lose. There will be a day when you don’t accomplish what you set out to, but the failure isn’t what you should dwell on—it’s how you bounce back that matters.
Playing a sport is about so much more than winning and losing. It’s about discipline, tolerance, forgiveness, humility, and teamwork. It’s about friendship and rivalries, failure and success. High school sports taught me how to be a man; it just took me a few years to realize it.
Photo: Flickr/Phil Roeder
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