What Makes A Sports Hero? Not Potions

Who did you idolize when you were a kid? Here’s a multiple choice:

  • a parent or grandparent
  • a community leader or public figure?
  • someone with a cool job?
  • an entertainer or a movie star?
  • a sports figure?

Sports figure, right? Yeah, if you’re reading this blog, at least one of your heroes was a sports figure. Why did you idolize them? Was it:

  • because they were rich?
  • because they were pretty or handsome?
  • because they drove a fancy car or lived in a fancy house?
  • because they were successful?

Yep, probably because they were successful. Nothing wrong with success. That’s what we’re all after, right? To be successful in our chosen field or career or sport. And our athletic heroes reached the pinnacle of their sports. Perhaps achieved more than anyone ever had. Probably had to make great sacrifices to achieve what they did. It was part of the great hero story. It’s part of the traditional hero story. Our heroes dreamed and then somehow their dream came true. 

And we celebrated this with them. Watched their amazing feats. Read their incredible stories or listened on TV or radio. Maybe even had their poster on our bedroom wall. Okay, personal admission, I had a poster of Mark Spitz, bedecked in gold medals, on my bedroom wall. Never met the man, but I idolized him. Wanted to be just like him. Swim for gold.

Today’s kids have sports heroes. Some of them with great stories of hardship and over-coming. Great talent. Tremendous effort and work. Some show great character and leadership. (Let’s focus on these.) And all of them have, as we all do, “fatal flaws.” Things that would bring them down that they must overcome. These, too, are what makes them heroes.

Two things concern me about the hero-idols our kids emulate today. The right now and the somehow.

Our kids wanna be their heroes  – right now

Our kids are growing up, at least in the US, in an immediate gratification society. They see it; they want it. They want it now; and often they get it. While parents are partly to blame here, myself included, I am not tackling the parent-problem. Rather, I see this transferred to the hero-worship. I see him; I want to be him. Why not now?!

I mean, it doesn’t look so hard to swing a bat like that or strike a soccer ball like that or hit a running back like that. Right? They hear, “Just believe in yourself.” Well, it takes more than believing (although it does take that). It takes years and years of hard work, a whole lot of talent, good decisions and maybe a bit of good luck along the way.

Our kids don’t see the “somehow” that made their heroes, heroes. The work and sacrifice and dedication and tough decision-making when they look at their heroes. They just see the talent and the success and they want it. Just like I did. But I didn’t live in a “right now” culture. They do. For those of us who coach and train today’s young people, we have to convince them to put in time working on the “somehow.” And even then of course there are no guarantees.

To stay in the game our heroes may have a “somehow” problem

I am not talking about the substance abusers out there. I am talking about the ones who have made it, maybe all the way to the top of their game. One might say they are the ones worth idolizing. But after all their training and preparation and diligence and perseverance, they are worn out. And unfortunately, some of our sport wears them out early. Faced with this, and unwilling to give up, they do all kinds of things to extend their careers. Including taking crazy advice about cure-alls and performance-enhancers. These are not only mythical in their effectiveness, they may also be dangerous to health. Certainly inadvisable for our youth. But when a hero does it…

Recently, Ray Lewis, Baltimore Ravens amazing linebacker, reportedly tried everything he could do to make sure he could play and not have to end his career early. “Everything” includes going to oddball clinics, which offer him things like specially soaked underwear that can help his recovery via certain chemicals that are allegedly in the underwear; devices to put on his arm that will deflect bad radio waves and cell phone energy that proponents say is bad for healing; and antler horn and other ground-up substances that supposedly contain growth-stimulating chemicals that can help you heal. According to Art Caplan, PhD, at the NYU Langone Medical Center in the Division of Bioethics, this is bad pseudoscience and needs to be debunked. He says,

“This is all utter nonsense and complete bunk. It is fraud. But athletes are out there trying it; athletes are desperate and will look for any edge. You can see that pro athletes Alex Rodriguez and Melky Cabrera, in baseball, and many, many college football players are trying these things out. [At least 1] person has been peddling stickers for football players to wear to deflect bad energy in the stadiums. Others are telling athletes to wear certain necklaces that will give you good vibes when you are trying to play.”

The point is, kids who emulate Ray Lewis are going to think they can play through injury or play through pain because they have a sticker or they’re wearing magical underwear or drinking specially treated water.

So, today we’ve got kids who wanna be Ray and read there is a magical way to get there. Sounds more like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and Hermione Granger in Potions class than real life and real sports. Can we get away from potions and please go back to the notion that too good to be true usually is?

Testimony from athletes who believe that something works because that’s what some peddler told them who made it “believable” when they typed up the label, is rarely good advice. Supplements for performance need to be tried and tested and found to be both safe and effective before we recommend them. Right now, time and effort are better spent on the training field. That’s where kids will find their “somehow.”

In the mean time, let’s introduce our kids to the athletes worth emulating. The ones who worked hard to earn the extra edge, gave thanks for all the people who encouraged them along the way, and once they succeeded, turned around and pulled a few folks up on the winner’s stand with them. They are worth having on a poster in your bedroom.

Who do you think are today’s athletes worth emulating?

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