I love watching basketball this time of year. The game-winning shots as time expires, the miraculous comebacks, and the raw emotion of players make this month exciting for even the most passive observer. In Sylacauga, we had our own version of March Madness with our girls and boys basketball teams competing in the Alabama Class 5A Final Four. To watch our student-athletes compete throughout the playoffs was a thrill!

Athletics was an important part of my formative years in Ashland. I was on the football, basketball, and baseball teams throughout my high school days. Most Sunday afternoons I would be with my friends playing basketball in the church gymnasium or tag football at the stadium. When I was not in school or church, athletics consumed my time. While I was passionate about sports, the reality is that I was part of the 94% of high school athletes that would not play in college.

Athletics helped shape who I am today. Work ethic, selflessness, respect for others, humility, and commitment are just a few lessons that I learned from competing. I still remember some of the big games I was a part of including playing in the finals of the state basketball tournament. The thrill of competition was exhilarating and impactful. Fortunately, I never felt like my coaches placed winning above all else. That, unfortunately, is not always the case for every young athlete. The madness of winning at all costs literally deflates what athletics should be about.

According to the National Alliance for Youth Sports, 70% of children quit athletics by the age of 13. Some students pursue other equally rewarding activities in the fine arts or academics. That, however, does not explain this staggering statistic given the value sports have when kept in their proper perspective. Two recent headlines have been a good reminder to me of why we need to reinvigorate the ideal that athletics is a key part of developing our young people to be good citizens.

A few weeks ago, I read an article in the Los Angeles Times about a father who tells the story of his obsessive drive to make his son an exceptional athlete. He summed up his feelings when he said “I ruined my son’s high school sports career and almost his life”. This young man will forever fight the physical and emotional pain brought upon him by his father’s obsession.

University of Connecticut basketball coach Geno Auriemma made some insightful comments during a recent NCAA tournament press conference. He said the world we live in has created a selfish desire among athletes that puts the individual above the team. He summed up his philosophy of what athletics should teach when he said “we put a huge premium on body language. And if your body language is bad, you will never get in the game. Ever.”

Athletics should instill character qualities that make winners in life. The madness comes in when we take the fun and meaning out of winning. Author Jon Gordon says “there is a big difference between wanting to win and needing to win”. He says wanting to win produces passion while needing to win produces pressure. We lose the power of sport if we lose the perspective of winning.

All the lessons we learn along the path of competition far outweigh the score at the end of the game. I could not have been more proud of our basketball teams this past Christmas when they participated in “Stuff the Bus” to provide essential supplies for needy families. As exciting as it was to see our teams be successful on the court, it was even more thrilling to see them place others above themselves. That is what athletics teaches and that is what March Madness should represent!

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Dr. Todd Freeman is Superintendent of Sylacauga City Schools. Almost 2,400 students are enrolled in Sylacauga’s school system — Sylacauga High School, Indian Valley Elementary School, Nichols-Lawson Middle School, and Pinecrest Elementary School. Follow Dr. Freeman on Twitter at mtfreeman or visit www.sylacauga.k12.al.us.

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