Real teamwork is when everyone feels they belong on the team
CONCORD, CA (Sept. 16, 2021) — Whenever I smell fresh-cut grass, hear squeaky shoes on a gym floor or feel the burn of chlorine in my eyes, I am instantly transported to my youth – where I existed almost entirely on a field, in a gym or poolside.
I remember heart-racing moments, passionate coaches and teammates whom I loved, but mostly what I recall is this undeniable feeling that I belonged.
My experience in athletics was empowering, and it inspired me to become a coach like my mentors. For the last 25 years, I have worked with beginner athletes as young as 3, competitive and recreational youth teams, Special Olympics athletes and elite players at the collegiate level. This wide scope has deepened my connection and clarity around the purpose of youth sports.
As a coach and LGBTQI+ youth advocate, I celebrate the recent clarifications that public schools have an obligation under Title IX to provide safe and non-discriminatory environments to LGBTQI+ students. At the same time, I am concerned about the uprising of anti-trans sports legislation in response.
As I listen to the arguments being made about equity, safety and level playing fields for girls, I keep coming back to the same question: What is the purpose of youth sports?
I am 6 and the pool is my safe place. One day, my sister’s coach tells me that if I swim the whole length of the pool without stopping, I could be on the team. I muster up all my courage, take a deep breath and jump in.
Studies continually show that there are multiple health and educational benefits associated with physical activity and playing sports. They include better sleep, improved mood, better concentration, higher GPAs, and reductions in depression and anxiety.
It is striking to then look at the Trevor Project National Survey, which clearly illustrates the mental health crisis and heightened risk of suicide for transgender youth. It is not a far leap to connect how participating in sports can be an intervention tool for all youth, especially those who identify as LGBTQI+.
I am 10 and my dad just signed me up for the local basketball team. I am one of two girls playing on the fifth-grade boys’ team. My dad tells me to not hold back. He says that I am just as good as the boys, maybe better. Next year, there might be more girls who will play.
Sports are for all of us, but historically the world of athletics has excluded marginalized people. Whether we are women, folks of color, queer, nonbinary, trans or differently abled athletes, we are faced with the reality that we may be one of one on the team this year.
I am a junior in high school and my softball team has qualified for the Michigan Class A state semi-finals. I am on third base and the score is 0-0. The coach calls a clutch play. My teammate up to bat must contact the next pitch and lay it down on the ground because I am stealing home on the release. I have never been so scared and so sure at the same time. The last thing I remember is nodding at the batter, smiling at my coach and then the umpire yelling “SAFE!” as I slid into home. My team did not win the game that day, but we won that moment.
Millions of kids 6-17 participate annually in youth sports. Less than half will continue to play in high school, even fewer in college and less than 1 percent will play professionally. So, what is the purpose of youth sports? I believe it is the lessons we learn about who we are and the chance to grow into confident, trusting, collaborative and productive people who contribute to the world.
I am coaching a Division 3 college volleyball team. When I ask the players what they love about volleyball, one athlete says: “It’s like I get to have another family who supports and believes in me.”
The NCAA’s transgender policy was established more than a decade ago and continues to be refined. While there is room for this policy to be even more expansive and less binary, it is an example of how sports organizations can be leaders in creating inclusive spaces for transgender people. This gives me hope that gender identity will one day cease to be a barrier for participation in sports and more youth will thrive.
In your conversations around transgender sports policies, I invite you to reevaluate how you define the purpose of youth sports and strive to create systems where all athletes experience belonging on the team.
Laura Cartwright is a Queer educator and oversees the training and curriculum at Rainbow Community Center.