Currently, thousands of young boys and girls in the country are involved in neighbourhood/community based sports programs; comprising mostly of football or basketball tournaments.
At a time when our children’s time is immensely squeezed between school-related activities, home chores, and even their own personal time – it’s fair to ask why neighbourhood/community leagues matter. The answer speaks less to how children find ways to exercise, and more to the challenges that will face them as they grow up in an increasingly complex world.
Most of us of a certain age can remember childhoods filled with neighbourhood activities that involved physical activity and interactions that provoke rich memories, even today. Our parents let us outside in the morning and called us back for meals. School activities were open to everyone, regardless of ability. Today, most schools are cutting back on physical education programs; children are devoting more time activities that keep them inside, inactive, and apart from physical interaction with others their age. Many families are low-income households, free time is at a premium, and activity schedules are regulated.
Childhood has become less about unstructured, collaborative fun and more about competition and pursuing individual achievement. In a world where parents are bombarded with messages about giving their kids an edge and developing elite skills, where you can find coaching and mentoring pitches that almost guarantee a path to scholarships and success, something crucial can be lost.
When I used to participate in neighbourhood tournaments, we couldn’t even remember what the score was of the previous match. All we could remember was that it was a glorious day, the sun was shining, and we were playing football with my friends. It has been more than twelve years since that day, and all of us have grown into adults. I still see some of these friends and former players from time to time. Invariably, they still remember their time playing football with their friends. More importantly, they retained the life lessons that neighbourhood leagues taught them, lessons that help during the often difficult path from childhood to becoming successful adults.
In team sports, you may be a star attacker or defender, but without the help of 10 other players you cannot be successful. During my childhood tournaments, every one of the players on my team contributed substantially in winning at least one game. Some of them were gifted players; some of them were not. They were friends, classmates, and neighbours, before and after the game. During the course of the season, all of them learned to depend on the others, to take pleasure in the other’s success and find ways to work together toward common goals. Some of them continued to play football through their teen years, others went on to other sports and interests. All of them took their experiences from Little League baseball into their adult lives.
More often than not, neighbourhood leagues are open to everyone; regardless of talent, ethnicity, gender, or ability. No one is turned away. There are and always will be opportunities for better players to play in highly competitive programs and even proceed to play for national teams. But talented players can learn far more from neighbourhood leagues than from those elite programs. A truly talented player is one who helps make an entire team better than it would otherwise be; one who understands that contributing to team success provides more benefit than can be achieved alone. A child that learns these lessons has all the perspective and tools to be a success in life.
The world has changed a lot ever since I was a child, and it’s unrealistic to expect neighbourhood leagues to remain entirely as they were in the 1990s. Our sense of neighbourhood and community has evolved as well. Children today face many more challenges and pressures than we did as kids. The Alfred Polo Foundation is not involved out of a sense of nostalgia. The Alfred Polo Foundation is involved because in a world where interactions are increasingly impersonal and indirect, neighbourhood leagues provide a place where children can have fun, where they can learn important life lessons. It provides a sense of connection across generations, common ground between parent and child and a reminder of what binds us together as a community, and the source of our strength as a nation.