An Open Letter to High School and College Athletes

I’m pouring out my story and my soul for you. Please listen.

This past Wednesday I sat next to Bummy, my school’s gym teacher, on the bench in the gym during Wednesday night pickup ball. I was home on break and I go to “Bummy Ball” whenever I get the chance. Bummy is a sports guru of sorts as his skills seem to be surpassed only by his knowledge. Not trivial sports facts, but like where to hit a shot in badminton, or how to get a perfect pass to the post in basketball. His knees are really limiting his time on the court, but I just know he was a special sort of athlete in his day. A guy who combined natural ability with the right attitude. On this particular occasion, we were talking about the high school’s basketball program and about the preparation that players had to put in, including weight lifting. Bummy gave a slight shake of his head and said, “You know, lifting weights, like bench-press and squats and all that, that’s all fine. But as a basketball player, the one exercise I would recommend above anything else is jumping rope. If a guys jumps rope a thousand times a day, he’d be incredibly quick and he’d add a good five inches to his vertical.” I nodded. I’d heard this before, back in high school gym class, almost word for word. “But,” Bummy said, “How many guys are going to commit to that?”

At that moment I thought: I didn’t. But if I could go back, I most certainly would.

Dear Young Athlete,

My sports career is over. When I walked off the baseball diamond for the final time in 2012, my time playing “meaningful” games came to an end. I am not playing official sports in college, and, barring a freakish growth-spurt, that isn’t going to change. My high school sports career was, in the grand scheme of things, forgettable. My basketball career ended before I ever suited up for a varsity game, and I scraped out a limited role as a starting pitcher in baseball my senior year, starting most non-conference games to give the aces a few days off. I used an underwhelming fastball with respectable accuracy and a curveball that was occasionally filthy to maintain my spot in the rotation, and I found myself on the mound a fair amount between JV, Junior Legion, and that final year on varsity. I never tried soccer, which I sort of regret, and my childhood dreams of playing football never materialized due to my slight build.

In short, I regret my high school sports career. But more about me later. Let me tell you that I’m not the only one. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a post on Facebook after a season came to an end that basically said, “I love my team and my sport wish things would have gone better wow time flies.” In other words, “I regret the way this turned out.” Oftentimes when I play pickup ball with other college-age kids, I don’t see a bunch of guys playing just because they love the game so much. Maybe some do, but mostly I see a bunch of guys who want so desperately for their peers to believe they’re good players and that they were really good in high school. Maybe they were, but then why are they out here playing like a cocky tool when they could be playing for the school team? What about their high school career didn’t satisfy them? Or how about the intramural flag football competitors who recently quit playing for the school team? I don’t believe they really love playing flag football that much. They just wish actual football would have worked out.

Or, take my friend, a former high school quarterback, who shall remain anonymous. When he gets the opportunity, he makes sure to remind people that he was an all-conference football player, had idiot coaches in all sports, and had no supporting cast on the line or catching the ball. He doesn’t say all this because he’s a jerk, because he’s actually a nice guy. He’s not a generally arrogant guy either. It’s because I know he wishes he had different circumstances in his sports career. Truthfully, he has a terrific arm and has a lot of natural athletic ability. He’s also a borderline savant when it comes to understanding his sport. If he had been 6’5 instead of 5’10 and attended a big-time high school, with a lot of work he probably could have played Division I football. I know he wishes he could have another shot at high school sports, perhaps under fantasy circumstances, because he would have made good on his potential. He would make the most of his gifts, gifts you might have.

So I’m writing this letter to you, high school or college athlete, because I don’t want you to miss out on your potential. I don’t want you to be like me, or my friend, or the numerous others who have gone before you and for one reason or another come up short in their career in athletics. Maybe you play sports just because it’s something to do and your friends play too. To the few of you out there who actually fit into this category: don’t be mad if you get passed over. If you’re cool with that, have fun with sports and enjoy the blessing. To the rest of you: listen up. Because maybe right now you’re content with where you’re at and you don’t feel the need to work any harder. Maybe you’re willing to coast by on your natural abilities and athleticism. Well listen to what I have to say. Because maybe you don’t know what you got til it’s gone. And maybe you need to lose something to really appreciate it. Don’t let that be you. I’ve been there. Listen to me and wake up.

To the coasters: If you are a natural athlete who has been blessed with skills and athleticism, use it. So many athletes excel based mostly off their predetermined advantages. Some of you are unusually tall, strong, quick, or coordinated. While a bunch of bad news bears blundered about you on the little league field, you made it all look easy. While your teammates hustled desperately to score a basket, you deftly scored time and again. And so you yawn and move on. Maybe you go to a camp here and there. Maybe you show bursts of determination now and then. And yet, you end up beating most of your opponents because you’re just that good.

I once heard two coasters exchange these baffling words during an open gym during the summer for basketball:

Coaster 1: “Dude, shoot the ball, you’re open.”

Coaster 2: “No, I don’t want to be a try-hard.”

Then why are you here? Why don’t you just leave? Are you here to get better or to mess around? Coasters have said things as ridiculous as, “Yeah he’s only good because he works hard.”

Dear Coasters, I would trample your sports dreams and eat your soul if given a second chance. I would have shamed you with my work ethic as I walked all over your turf. Then I would have picked you up off your sorry butt and told you to follow me or get out. So, Coasters, while you idly lounge about or take the easy way out at practice, I just want you to imagine a kid, drenched in sweat, with a look of hateful determination in his eyes, standing in front of you. And you’re in that kid’s way. That kid is me. And I don’t care who you are.

To the good-enoughs: I used to be you. I worked hard in practice then called it a day. I mostly avoided optional stuff. I didn’t play a lot in the off-season. I did what I thought would be enough. Let me ask you about my high school’s soccer team, who came up short of their goal of a state championship three years in a row. Do you think those guys wouldn’t trade 100 hours of Call of Duty for just ten more on the pitch? Do you think they’d run just a little bit harder in every practice if they thought it could give them just an additional 1% chance of beating their opponent to the ball? They worked hard, and they put in the time. But maybe they didn’t put in enough. Maybe they left just enough to chance. I know how much their sport and their team meant to them, but now it’s too late. Leave no room for “I could have.”

To the users: Your lack of respect for your sport and appreciation for your blessings makes me sick. I once heard a basketball player at my college say to his friend, “No, I didn’t travel with the team this week. But that’s okay because now I can drink tonight.” Really? Well, maybe you would have made the travel team if you stopped poisoning yourself and worked a little harder. Dear users, do you not understand how anti-productive drinking and smoking are? Do you understand how much you limit your potential by consuming excess amounts of alcohol or filling your lungs with smoke? Why is it that, while you intoxicate yourself, you aren’t suddenly struck with a vision of your opponent in the weight-room, getting in extra reps? Why don’t you see the guy behind you fighting for playing time in the gym, working on his jump-shot? Dear drinkers, you will eventually fail. I’ve seen it. And I’ve seen you cry after you do. Maybe you don’t care about winning now, but losing will hurt every time. Is it worth it? Is blacking out better than celebrating with your teammates after a championship? Is a kegger really as much fun as dumping Gatorade on your coach? So, to my drinkers and smokers, I hope whenever you wake up hung over, struggling to remember what happened the night before, I hope you are struck with a vision of your opponent, who is already at the gym getting better, fresh off a good night’s sleep, with the day he plays you marked on his calendar. Because if the booze flows last night, the tears may flow that night.

To the timid: I was also once you. In many ways I still am. Don’t ever let your confidence ruin your career. Attitude is half the battle, maybe more. If you ever feel bad about yourself or lose confidence, I implore you to pull yourself together and stand up. You can make it. Go for it. Sports are a big deal, but high school and high school sports aren’t really as scary as they seem. Stand on the mound with confidence and give it your best shot. Stand in the batters box and just see the ball and hit the ball. Relax. Go out on the basketball court and always try to defend the best guy out there. Always want to take the shot but be willing to pass. Don’t be afraid to fail, or you’ll be too afraid to succeed.

To all of you: Don’t miss out on what I wish I had. I still shoot hoops, sometimes quite frequently. And I can’t help but image myself back in high school sometimes. I never got the chance to hear my name called in the starting lineup. I never got to hoist a trophy that I really helped earn. I never made all-conference. I never gave my jersey to a girl. Instead, I’ve played a lot of pick-up and intramurals. And maybe an optimist would say I’m better off for that and I’ll tell those optimists they’re wrong. Because for every good game of pick-up I play I play a bad one with guys who don’t know what they’re doing or with a bunch of knobs who just jack up a bunch of threes and don’t play defense. Intramurals just aren’t the same either.

So has any of this made any impact on you? Has it made you think? Have I convinced you of anything? Will you work any harder or change anything you do? Or are you still just going to keep on with whatever you do and face the inevitable regret that I and so many others have experienced? Anything? No? Well let me try something else. If this hasn’t moved you at all, then:

You haven’t sat in a dugout watching someone else play instead of you.

You haven’t sat on the end of the bench waiting and waiting for your name to be called.

You haven’t dominated a pick-up game and convinced yourself you’re pretty good.

You haven’t ever started hitting the ball well just in time for the end of the season.

You haven’t looked at a game of baseball or basketball with an aching heart.

You haven’t led an intramural team to face the greatest team in your school’s history led by your former master and basketball guru to the greatest upset in league history and felt the greatest sports feeling only to see that feeling fade and eventually get smashed when you lose in the playoffs.

You haven’t realized that it’s all just intramurals.

You haven’t gotten up early to take more jump-shots.

You haven’t desperately tried to catch up with weight lifting only to realize you’re just not built that way.

You haven’t been skipped over for what you perceive to be no reason.

You haven’t been dusted in sprints by guys you used to beat on a regular basis.

You haven’t ever discovered all your hard work wasn’t enough.

You haven’t stood in the kitchen crying in your dad’s arms as you tell him you’re quitting.

You haven’t looked back and wondered if you could have tried just a little harder.

You haven’t had the idea that maybe it was just your confidence all along.

You haven’t thought about how things would have turned out if you worked as hard all four years of high school as you did that last one.

You haven’t come close to tears every time you see that video at the top of the post.

You haven’t been denied something you wanted so badly.

Or maybe you have. And if that’s the case, you should understand even more so. So maybe now you’ll put in more time. Maybe now you’ll quit drinking and smoking. Maybe now you’ll do enough and then some. Maybe now you’ll get in the right mindset. Maybe now you’ll take the opportunity you’ve been given and make the most of your blessings.

Dear athlete, if you’ve read all of this and just shrug your shoulders, if you ignore what I’ve just told you, if you plod along in your idle content, if you forget about me in that empty gym on that early morning shooting and dreaming, if you forget about my friend throwing the football around just wishing and musing, if you forget those who want so badly to get a do-over or to get the chance you have, if you forget that we would do more with the hand you’ve been dealt than you currently are, then I just have one question for you. One simple question:

Why the @#$% are you playing sports?

The SneakyGoodSportsGuy

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