During work last Friday I decided to do my usual online sport-site trolling new articles concerning my favorite teams. I make visits to several college football sites, a Seattle Sounders blog, mlssoccer.com, and ESPN.com hoping to encounter something of interest. On Friday I ran into an article entitled: 12-year-old Chivas USA standout John Kenneth Xuxuh Hilton has caught the eye of Manchester City. Being driven by nothing but curiosity I clicked the article and scrolled down immediately to watch the several videos showcasing this young phenom’s talent. To my horror, what I found was less of a commentary on this young boy’s greatness, but a troubling picture of the state of youth sports in this culture.
One of the primary categories of interest to me in my work with athletes is in how an athlete’s identity develops throughout their lives as mediated by their involvement in sports. Lately I’ve been particularly focused on the relational roots of this conversation, which can be explored through the lens of attachment (evidenced by my first blog). One of the questions that I’ll be asking a lot throughout this blog is “how is this _____ (interaction, behavior, abuse, trauma…etc…) forming and impacting this athlete’s understanding of themselves, others, the world, and God.” This amalgamation of understandings, as compiled in experiences throughout our lives, lends us a sense of who we are…or in other words, our identity. The linchpin of this discussion revolves around the belief that although there are certain factors that inherently make us unique (nature: genetics, biology, physiology…), we have each come to be formed primarily through our experiences in relationship with others (nurture: family, friends, culture etc…).
Let me use an example from my own life. I used to believe that my ability to counsel and give advice to friends was just a product of a unique gift set that I was born with. I assumed that these qualities were always in me from the beginning of my life…that being a counselor was “who I was” (identity). During the course of several years of work in grad school and psychotherapy I began to see that it was no accident that I found myself pursuing jobs in the helping professions. I learned at an early age that in order to exist in my family I needed to listen and solve problems. I didn’t become a counselor by a certain set of genes…that identity was a product of a far more complicated and disturbing process.
Let’s look back at what was said to Xuxuh by his trainer with the understanding that what is happening is forming and shaping who this boy is and will become. What you are watching is no small thing when wearing this lens. “You don’t express pain, right?” Readers, you are watching much more than a training session forming the physical conditioning of a young athlete…you are watching the internal conditioning of him as well.
Xuxuh seems to be on the way towards a long and rich athletic career. If things go well he will fulfill the hopes of many people who long for his success (or are they actually longing to fulfill their own?). The blog that released this story, and the agency training Xuxuh, goes on to say that “[Xuxuh] has the mental strength and stability to endure the sacrifices required.” I have little doubt that what this young boy is doing at this training facility has had a huge impact on his ability to set himself apart from his peers athletically. In an age where players must be “bigger, stronger, faster, and tougher” this may actually be on the tamer side of what young boys are being asked to do by coaches, trainers, and parents. The question that we all must ponder much more seriously though is “at what cost?”
Hansen’s disease, more commonly known as Leprosy, is often lethal because it destroys the central nervous systems ability to communicate effectively. By attacking the skin’s ability to feel appropriately and communicate pain to the brain, lepers often die because of secondary injuries they were unaware of suffering.
Pain tells us something. It lets us know when our body/mind/soul is saying “no”. It communicates limitations and warns us of danger. It tells us our boundaries. Without the ability to communicate such pain we are unable to respond appropriately to what is harming us. We are, in some sense, lepers. We are people who have had one of our most important and precious senses infected, leaving us open to a whole host of harmful toxins.
When we are young, like Xuxuh, we don’t yet know these boundaries. A child who reaches for a flame has no idea about the potential and consequence of such a venture. Without the guidance of those who are older, stronger, and wiser, we would have no way of knowing how to maneuver what our developing minds are too young to fully understand. The impact then of a coach who tells a young athlete to keep silent about his pain can be very, very formative. This communication is teaching a boy to discard one of his most important senses…one that would give him permission to say “no” to what destroys his body, soul, and mind.
But like Xuxuh’s coach said, such damages are just a part of the “sacrifices required” for a child who longs to become the Next Great Athlete…