Last night was the regular-season finale -- Senior Night -- for the local girls' and boys' varsity basketball teams. Through summer camps and clinics, my kids have gotten to know a lot of the players on those teams pretty well over the years, so it felt right to be there to cheer them on.
The scene was fascinating:
On the one hand, you had these seniors who have spent an inordinate amount of their time and effort (not to mention their parents' time, effort and resources) on the athletic experience they have had over the past four (or, in a lot of cases, 10 or more) years.
There was the sentimental bond between teammates and obvious joy within the moment: A popular, vocal senior reserve got a ceremonial start. When he scored an early basket and the gym erupted, I couldn't help but turn to look at his parents in the bleachers and watch them bursting.
I also couldn't help thinking about the opportunity cost of that experience -- thousands of hours over the years (maybe tens of thousands?), thousands of dollars over the years (maybe tens of thousands?), thousands of other things not participated in. Was it all worth it?
One member of the senior class wasn't there -- a presumptive starter, he transferred to a local private-school hoops factory last summer. One senior starter who had considered transferring to a powerhouse over the summer, instead stuck around and ended up thriving as a leader on the team. Another starter left the team just before the season started, burnt out on the youth-hoops experience.
Undoubtedly, there were countless kids in the stands who played grade-school hoops with all of these seniors, then stopped for one reason or another -- other sports or activities, stopped growing, stopped loving it or simply ran into that immutable opportunity cost of how they (and you, as their parents) choose to invest their energy in their fleeting teen years.
Too good. Too much. Just enough. Wondering what might have been -- from the bleachers ... and maybe even from the bench. Hopefully enjoying the moment.
That probably represents some fairly standard points on the bell curve of the youth-sports experience, as your kids make their ways from the playful and formative days of the grade-school teams (where my 9-year-old is now) through the pressure-packed pipeline to -- perhaps -- end up as one of three or four kids in the entire grade who play on the team and earn the right to walk out to center court (or center field or center ice) before the game, arm-in-arm with their parents on Senior Night.
During last night's ceremony, there was a simultaneous dynamic -- the cycle re-starting:
The best players from the JV team had been called up, and with playoff seeding secured, it was a moment for the seniors to bask in some well-earned glory, then a chance for freshmen and sophomores to enjoy their own glimpse of the varsity spotlight. (I was sitting next to a parent who was the point guard of my high school class. He still vividly remembered not being called up to the varsity as a sophomore to finish the season.)
One talented freshman call-up drove into the lane, was fouled and still managed to hit a contested shot, sending freshman friends in the bleachers -- and his older teammates on the bench -- into a frenzy. Was it a preview of how he and his parents will spend much of the next three years of his life? For some of his JV pals watching from the bleachers ahead of being cut from varsity tryouts next fall, maybe this is as good as it gets.
During a moment like Senior Night, it is impossible not to reflect and take stock. For the players and their parents, the investment has already been made; regardless of the opportunity cost, you can only hope that for the kid, it was worth it.
But what about a parent like me, the parent of a kid who is just starting out? At every turn -- every new season, really -- you are met with decision points: Keep investing your time, energy and money? Encourage your kid to try something new? Be the ballast between the kids' naively wonderful enthusiasm and what you, as the adult in the relationship, presume are the realistic limits?
I watched the enthusiastic and effort-intensive seniors relishing every limited minute of their experience on the court and the camaraderie on the bench with their teammates, and I cannot help but irrationally project about my own kids' possible sports future. But the rational side of me feels like that is abrogating my responsibilities as a parent, especially when I envision what that experience must cost -- not just financially, but in every way.
As a parent, all you can hope is that the return for your kid -- lessons of how to be a good teammate, dedication to something, pride in the process, those memorable moments of pure joy -- is worth it to them by the time they get to whatever their version of Senior Night might be.
Dan Shanoff writes about the intersection of sports and parenting for espnW. Follow him on Twitter at @danshanoff and continue the conversation on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/espnw.