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When the lessons you teach finally come to fruition on a field of sweaty teens

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Earlier this week I sat in the comfy seat of my minivan, watching various sports team practices in the neighborhood while I waited for my son to finish his own practice.

This particular practice looked pretty brutal, even for scrappy teenagers, made more so because it was the first practice of the season. It was the last 15 minutes of a two-hour practice.

For the last drill, the guys had to sprint, stop halfway to squat all the way to the ground and then jump as high as they could, sprint to the end, do 20 push-ups, and sprint all the way back. It looked exhausting to me, already in my pajamas in my car.

I guess there were around 20 boys there. As with any team, some finished quickly, most were in the middle, and some brought up the rear.

After the fastest guys were already at the finish line, I noticed one single teammate who was only at the squat-jumps. The coach was encouraging him, but he looked like he was about to collapse or vomit or both. He finished his jumps and slowly jogged to the push-up station.

By this time, most of the team had finished, and the straggler was alone at the opposite side of the field. The young man slowly went down into a push-up position but was clearly struggling to do even one push-up. I saw the coach get into a push-up position next to him to encourage him.

The next thing I saw was several of the exhausted players who were long past the finish line run back to the opposite side of the field and join the last guy in his push-ups. They did this not because they had to, but because they wanted to support their teammate. When the push-ups were done, they all ran back to the finish line together.

I sat alone in the car with tears in my eyes and was so proud of these young men I don’t know. These were teens who might have rolled their eyes at their parents sometime that day, pissed off their siblings, and maybe forgotten to turn in a school assignment. No doubt they had done something undesirable, being the surly teens they are.

But out of all the things those boys did that week, I would say that the most important thing was to run back to the struggling teammate, do extra push-ups with him so he wouldn’t be alone, and run with him to the finish line.

These boys didn’t learn to do that last week. They learned as toddlers when their parents talked to them in calm voices to teach them about the world.

They learned as preschoolers when they said they didn’t like a classmate and a parent pointed out that even if they didn’t like her, they had to treat her with respect.

They learned in elementary school, when they complained about a friend’s behavior and a parent explained you never know what someone’s going through in the part of their lives you can’t see.

They learned in Little League when the last batter struck out with bases loaded and missed the winning hit. That night, a father explained that no single strikeout loses a game. A team wins or loses together.

They learned it when one dancer in the group missed a pirouette and fell in the performance, giving the top trophy to another school’s dance team. That night, a mother explained that we all fall sometimes, but supporting your friend is more important than the trophy.

They learned it when their basketball teammate missed the free throws that would’ve won the game. That night, a parent explained that you win some, you lose some.

They learned it at a track meet, when their teammate dropped the relay baton and the error cost your child the race. That night, a parent explained we all drop the baton at some point in our lives.

The way you talk to and teach your kids as they grow up matters. If they hear you put down their classmates and teammates, they’ll be the kid on the team yelling out in frustration, “Jake, you should’ve had that! Terrible play!”

If you tell them they’re the best one on the team and the team couldn’t win without them, they’ll become the teammate that stomps around and pouts when the team loses, blaming it on everyone else but himself.

But if you tell them as my mom told me, “some days you’re the pigeon, some days you’re the statue,” then they’ll realize we all have to support each other to get through each day.

If you have young kids, each moment is a teaching opportunity. It’s never too early to talk about kindness. Emphasize teamwork and sportsmanship and how important it is to support each other, and your kids will be the ones who run back to do extra push-ups with a struggling teammate. And when that happens, you will know you’ve done your job.

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