In recent years I have written about concussions in youth sports in this space, with a special focus on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease of the brain that is the result of repetitive brain trauma. This was something I knew nothing about in my teenage years. As a high school and college football player in the 1960s and ’70s, using one’s head as a battering ram and shock absorber was expected.
Beyond the discovery of CTE and what it has generated in the way of much-improved player safety, August never fails to evoke memories of twice-daily summer practices when guys like me went to “training camp” before school started. Training camp lasted about two weeks. It was usually hot out. They were two weeks that felt like a year. Those were the make or break days of my youth. No one was cut from the team as long as they showed up, but many did not last.
The rawest depiction of a brutal summer football camp can be found in the book The Junction Boys by Jim Dent. The subtitle of the book is How Ten Days in Hell with Bear Bryant Forged a Championship Team. Although I never went through anything quite like the Junction Boys did, it seems that all high school and college football players have similar war stories about summer camp.
I’m not about to rehash what I’ve since learned since the discovery of CTE and the need for protective measures or share stories from my summer football camp days. However, at the risk of being cliché, there are some important lessons I learned from playing football.
As we round out another August, I thought I’d share a few of those lessons here. Most have served me well. Some have a downside.
As the saying goes, showing up is half the battle. But don’t just show up; be there on time. In football there were serious consequences for being late, but losing the respect of one’s peers eclipsed them all.
Know that when you are working hard, there are others working just as hard and others who are not. Push yourself to surpass your opponents and inspire your teammates.
Keep your head up. Push through disappointment and injuries. This is mostly a good trait, but it can also prevent you from seeking the support you need when you really need it, physically and emotionally. Vulnerability is not a lesson I learned in football.
It is essential that others who are pulling with you toward accomplishing a goal know that they can always count on you. There is a brotherhood that forms on a football team that demands dependability.
Enjoy success but don’t be boastful. Have gratitude for all those who helped to support your success.
Never give up. It is what your adversaries expect. By pushing through missteps and setbacks you learn what it takes to succeed and that your capacity to overcome failure is greater than you anticipated.
As the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers Vince Lombardi said, “It’s not whether you get knocked down; it’s whether you get up.” To survive playing football, resilience is essential.
Fortunately, these lessons can be learned in many places other than the football field. Any group activity that requires teamwork, sacrifice and shared goals generate important life lessons. Make sure the young people in your life put down their cellphones and other tech gadgets and take up a sport, join a club or get involved in the arts, to name a few possibilities. They’ll grow into better people—and with no head-butting required.
Andrew Malekoff is the executive director of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, which provides comprehensive mental health services for children from birth through 24 and their families. To find out more, visit www.northshorechildguidance.org.