Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Sports In Small Towns: Does The Tail Wag The Dog?

July 1, 2002

I have heard rural ministers refer to sports as the real religion of rural communities. Sports bring the need for community celebration and personal validation together in a powerful way. Taking pleasure together in public gives a sense of community to lives otherwise becoming increasingly isolated and fragmented. Sports provide a boost toward the feeling, "We count; we are special."

A winning team lifts the burden of inferiority and brings back pride. "We are as good as or better than anybody else. We can compete." Winning brings meaning to life.

Games fill a glaring need of rural communities - the need for "something to do." Sources of community leisure and entertainment are minimal. Games are a place to go. Parents take vicarious pleasure in the performance of their sons and daughters. The rest of the family and community join in recognizing, appreciating and adulating the talents of local teen sports heroes.

Youth development. Besides filling community needs for drama, entertainment and meaning, participation in team sports become a child's ticket to popularity and self-esteem. Sports can build character and teamwork. The influence of coaches can be great. Sports require self-discipline and sacrifice.

Sports can be a lifeline for youths from troubled or single-parent families. Sports fill a void. Young people learn they can compete despite differences in economic backgrounds. The concern and influence of coaches and teammates can pull young people away from drugs and alcohol abuse and other high risk behaviors.

Parents want their kids to succeed, be accepted and fit in. They sacrifice much of their time for their children’s sake. The decision not to be involved in sports eliminates a major arena for belonging and recognition. The sacrifice of family time seems worth it.

Sports have a downside. Parents run themselves ragged trying to keep up with sports events. There are innumerable practices, games and trips. Commuting for farm families is time consuming and expensive.

Family time disappears. Leisure time is gone. Saturdays are used up. Sundays and weekday church nights are encroached upon. Off-season practice and camps are encouraged for the "serious" athlete. In this age of specialization, sports like wrestling, volleyball, gymnastics and swimming are alternate choices. Each sport has its vocal adherents among the parents and fractionates the community further.

Many parents feel the pressure to introduce their children to athletics during their elementary school years. This creates concerns about the impact of competitiveness, performance anxiety and emphasis on winning at early ages.

Distortion of priorities. Not every teen is a gifted athlete. Some fail to make the team or don't get off the bench. Where is their self-esteem? How do players feel when decisions on who plays sometimes depend on whose son or daughter you are? How do the kids in music, debate, drama, vo-ag, or honor society feel? Where is their share of the headlines and recognition?

Talented go-getters valiantly try to do athletics, academics, youth leadership, farm work, church activities or hold down a job. They learn the hard way that too much is too much. Mainly, sports seductively distracts kids from the real business of school and learning.

If an athlete is good, the pressure to compete is great. Even when he or she may prefer one sport, there are powerful feelings of obligation to compete in several sports. Privately some teens confide they were glad they didn't make it to district or regional tournaments just to have the season over.

After graduation, a star athlete goes from "Who's Who" to "Who are you?" His or her place on the pedestal is taken by the next group of athletes carrying the community banner. When they fail to make the college team or good grades, it begins to dawn on them they've been playing the wrong "game".

The star athlete who remains in the community may get stuck reliving past glories and become depressed when adult life doesn’t compare favorably to the limelight of being a high school hero.

Inflated egos. If a town is lucky enough to have a championship season, the pride and arrogance of the sports stars may become insufferable, both to their parents and peers. Their charmed life adds to normal teen-age feelings of immunity. Their inflated self-esteem feeds bravado exactly at a time when a good dose of humility is needed.

They feel rules don't apply to them. This is dangerous when parents, coaches, school officials, and law enforcement choose to look the other way when rules are violated. With this community pampering and immunity from consequences, incidents of lawlessness and violence show up.

Other youth development programs suffer. Athletics compete directly with other activities and organizations that develop the character, talents and personalities of youth. Church groups, Boy Scouts, FFA, 4-H and other youth groups find it difficult to attract and sustain the interest of teens.

Parents, too, are too busy to give support or participate as volunteer leaders. Time can be stretched only so far. The real action is in athletics. Other programs get lip service.

Families and rural communities need to sort through this issue and decide where sports fit in their lives. There is only so much energy to go around. Communities can put sports into perspective and work together so families control sports instead of the other way around.