I was a very active child. In fact my mother has often told me that she spent the better part of the first 8 years of my life in sneakers only so she could keep up with me. So, one Saturday morning in 1979 -- in what I would assume was an effort to channel my energy -- my mother took me to a park near our home in Queens, NY and taught me how to play basketball. I immediately fell in love. I fell in love with everything about the sport. I fell in love with dribbling, shooting, passing, and defense. Yes, even defense.What my mother didn’t realize when she took me to the park that day was that basketball would have a profound effect on me. For her it was just something that she enjoyed playing as a young girl and wanted to share that with her more-than-active daughter (probably so she could tire me out and get some work done at home that afternoon). For me, the park and the basketball hoop in it, weren’t just a place to play, they became the space where I learned valuable life lessons that are central to who I am today. Sadly, I believe that young girls today are not being given access to that classroom anymore.I was lucky. I grew up pre-24 hour cable news. That means that while my parents were always concerned about my safety they weren’t obsessed with it, and they let me leave the house after school everyday (without knowing where I was going or a cell phone or a GPS tracker) I would spend hours riding my bike and playing in the park. Was it dangerous at times? Sure. But the barrage of sensationalized news stories about all that is wrong with the world, didn’t exist. So the overprotectiveness that we see in parents today wasn’t the norm.Being afforded the opportunity to be outside and experience self-directed play, the park became the classroom and pick up game became the curriculum. In case you aren’t aware, the phrase “pick up” describes when you go to a basketball court and the individuals playing there govern the rules, teams and structure in a collaborative way, determined by a set of norms universal to the sport of basketball. Meaning... you show up, say you want to play and then play - except the only way to do that is to know the language.I can still remember the first time that I went to play basketball at the park. I was the only girl (which wasn’t new -- I was often the only girl at the park) and eager to show my skills. I tightened the laces on my all white Nike high top basketball shoes (I painted the swoosh red cause it was cheaper than buying the red and white Nikes - yes back then they were like $40!). I put my blue striped tube socks on and made sure they were right below the knee like all the cool kids. As I was taught in school, when I arrived at the park I assumed that we took turns. So I waited for my turn. Quietly. And I waited and waited. At the end of the day, the games were over and I walked home never having played a minute. I clearly didn’t know how to play pick-up and didn’t understand the culture. So I went back the next day, wearing my red striped tube socks (because they seemed to mean business), the same sneakers and waited again. This time I started to see that you had to call “next” in order to get in the game. But that seemed incredibly scary so I hoped that if I waited someone would just ask me to join. And again, I didn’t play a single minute of basketball. The same thing happened the next day, and the day after that… until finally, I was able to utter the words, “I got next.” And when that happened – life changed for the better. I learned some really important lessons playing pickup basketball. Below are just a few of those lessons:
Use your voice.If you want to play you have to speak up.If you want to be part of the action you have to ask for the ball.Teaching young girls the power of their voice is so important. All too often girls are told to “stop talking” or more subtly, that being quiet is cute, attractive, and feminine. We need to give them the space to use their voice and teach them how important it is to use to for themselves and others.Speak when you have been fouled; but don’t call every foul.No one respects someone they can push around, but no one respects you when you call a foul that didn’t create an advantage.There are times when people will not do right by us, for a variety of reasons, and often times it’s not with intent to harm (even though it may). Understanding intent helps us choose the issues that we want to change and helps us put energy where it’s most needed.Yet, no matter the intent, it’s important to bring awareness to things when they happen to let the offending party know… “I see you.”Treat everyone fairly and with respect.
In pick up, your opponent can quickly become your teammate.There is no value in treating anyone like the enemy or burning bridges. Be caring and compassionate in all your interactions. Make space for people’s limitations and mistakes. We all have them.Sadly, our young girls aren’t getting these lessons. They are being shuttled into organized teams by the age of 7 (sometimes earlier!) and their experiences are being crafted with the focus on the outcome (winning, college scholarships, etc.), not on the enjoyment of the process.We need to get our daughters back in the parks and stop managing their experiences. While I don’t want any child to ever feel sad or excluded, it’s important that they are placed in situations where they have to learn how to assert themselves and find their own creativity. Its important that they are allowed the space to self-direct their own play.Here are some actions that we can take now:1.Stop putting our youth into competitive programs before the age of 12. There is no benefit to them, and it can impact their health in negative ways. I know many scholarship athletes that never played competitively before middle school. Many. And let’s be real – you have less than a 3% chance of getting an athletic scholarship and less than a 1% that scholarship would be a full-ride. And, I also know many talented athletes that burned out before they even made it to high school.2.Get to know your neighbors. If you are worried about the safety of your neighborhood, then it’s your responsibility to work to fix it. The first step is getting outside and meeting those people that live around you. Exchange phone numbers, have them over for dinner, borrow sugar etc… It doesn’t matter if you are in a city or a suburb. You don’t have to know everyone but know enough so that if your child is ever in danger they are never far from someone you trust.3.Work with you local city governments to make sure that parks are clean and safe. Work to ensure that there is proper lighting at the park and on the street. Clear away and brush or wooded areas that can be dangerous. If there is unsafe activity, work with your local police and community activists to remove those elements.4.Buy a basketball for your daughter at a young age and encourage her to go outside and just play. In fact, buy her two, so she can bring along a friend or maybe even learn some tricks with two balls. This isn’t about her learning technique. Its about her learning to have fun.5.Don’t rescue your daughter when she is faced with conflict on the court. You can help her process responses (before and after) but don’t make judgments on how she responds so much that she is unwilling to ask you for support. Give her space to learn empathy and understanding by asking her to think about how the other person felt, and how she could have handled the situation differently.
6.STOP making sports about the outcome (the win or the loss) . When all we talk about is the outcome young people learn to love winning and hate losing. The game just becomes the vehicle they use to achieve the feeling of success (a win). When you focus on the process (the actual playing) they learn to love the sport, and the experience and then they keep playing it. They play all the time because its fun...I didn’t play pick up basketball to win a trophy, get on a travel team or get a college scholarship. I played because it was fun.Oh and if you ask anyone who knows me they will attest that I still have tons of energy and still play pick up although now I know how to get into the game.