Courtesy: Donna Hale
More times than I can count during the era of COVID, I have heard parents of non-collegiate athletes speak about how the challenges our student-athletes face in all sports are no big deal. After all they say, it is just a sport that will end soon anyway. What is the big deal?
I propose that it is a bigger deal than ever in this pandemic. There are the added lessons our kids learn more deeply because it teaches our students resilience, grace, patience and gratitude for the opportunities they have been given and opportunities lost. We all need to pause and remember the work and sacrifice that is required to compete in any sport at the college level. Swimming is the example I know best – no offseason, no timeouts, and clocks that are your best friend and some days your painful teacher. And for this joy, you often practice twice a day, six days a week, with gym time added in. These athletes have given up much to reach this dream – choices they made willingly, most often with a wide smile and a grateful heart. For some this has been an entire lifetime of missed social outings, late night movies, and just spending time hanging out. They knew they were part of something that transcended their own identity so they marched on. And COVID has simply sucked. Some missed champ meets, others missed weeks or longer of practice, kids missed entire seasons, many of the bonding activities were cancelled, and some suffered COVID and the after effects. This list goes on. And of course we mourn the lives lost – most of all. This is the awful tragedy.
But this piece is about the impacts of COVID on sports in college and why it does matter. To our athletes their chosen passion is more than just a sport. And while it is true that most will not make a living at their sports, the experiences they have been granted are life-changing and helped mold who they are becoming. For many seniors this is hard. They never imagined ending this journey with no closure or a shortened and modified experience. Yes, it is part of life and lessons are no doubt great for the journey we all constantly pursue. But we have the responsibility to let them feel the loss in whatever way works for them. They can and should grieve. And we need to do what we can to recognize what they have done. We need to help them “Find the Joy.” Parents, coaches, friends, schools – we all have a role to play.
When they look back, we need to be sure they remember the amazing times more than what have been some painful lessons. My heart aches for the seniors. You always have known that you will have a last game, a last swim, and perhaps when you will take that last trip around the sun. COVID has made that hard. So our athletes wonder will X, Y and Z happen in ways they were never forced to contemplate so directly. Now we all know that nothing is for certain. Injury and Illness can end your journey overnight. We all know that. But, we are now just more aware because we are living in these ever-changing times. Maybe realizing this can be good. You play with more passion and purpose. And each time you give it all you got. That is not a bad approach to living…giving it all you got. But maybe the best lesson of these times it to live in the moment. When my daughter was young I called it “Pursue Moments”. To Find the Joy may be hard, but it is essential. I remind my senior whenever I can. I also remind myself.
Enjoy everything your sport can offer – friends, team outings, special milestones, locker room fun, and embrace all the lessons and opportunities you can. Win with grace. Lose with dignity. Bask in the success of others every single day. It is privilege and an honor to be a college athlete. You belong to a special group who had the heart and soul to put it all on the line – whether it was champs season or the start of a new part of your journey. We respect you, we love how much you have given. And we are proud. What we wish for you is that every moment you have left doing what you love is amazing – pure and joyful. And remember – you have lessons to teach those following behind you. So here’s to all our athletes this year – my own included, but especially to the seniors. Savor every second. Keep on fighting for your dreams forever. You are not just an athlete or just a swimmer. Embrace the joy. For, you will not pass this way again.
Donna Hale has been a swim mom for 18 years and her daughter is a senior in NCAA Division III.