With basketball tournaments underway we are officially in the period known as “March Madness.”
Having been a basketball official for nearly 30 years, I know firsthand that the pressure to win intensifies during any tournament, regardless of age level.
I recently officiated some tournaments with players ranging from fourth to eighth graders. For the most part, the kids were fine. The pressure came from parents and coaches for the most part.
We are living in a culture with a win no matter what the cost mentality. We have seen it for years in professional and college sports, but, sadly, it has even filtered down to high school and children’s team sports. If you don’t believe it, go to any AAU summer basketball tournament and see for yourself.
But there is one group of athletes who, so far, seem to be immune from this win at any cost mind-set. I recently had the opportunity and privilege of refereeing for Special Olympics. I have done this for several years and it is always a blessing.
What’s more, I have been reminded of several life truths by these special folks with physical and intellectual disabilities. They range in age from children through adults.
(1) Sports is not life and death. It is okay to play for the fun of it. The world is not going to end if your team loses. Sure, we all want our favorite teams to win. When we compete in a sport (whether team or individual) we want to win and give it our best effort. There is nothing wrong with that. It is natural. But when winning becomes so important that coaches berate players and parents are acting like idiots in the stands, something is wrong. I had one official tell me just recently that a parent accused him of ruining her daughter’s career. She is only 10 years old. Give me a break.
As I was refereeing my Special Olympics games, I saw boys, girls, men, women of all ages playing basketball and just having fun. That was refreshing.
(2) It is okay to celebrate the accomplishments of others (even when they are not on your team). One of the enjoyable things about participating in Special Olympics is seeing the joy in the faces of the athletes when they accomplish something. The really neat part is seeing others celebrate what they do. I had a game in which someone scored and it was pretty apparent that it was not a common occurrence. The smile on that person’s face was priceless and so was the reaction of their teammates and even the opposing teams. They celebrated an achievement and it didn’t matter that the person was not on their team.
(3) Don’t ever quit. I saw men and women with some pretty severe disabilities but they were still on the court giving it their best effort. That’s an example we should all follow. We are quick to get discouraged when life places us in stressful situations. We bemoan what has happened to us, whether it be an illness, death of a loved one, loss of a job, etc. We will face difficulties in life. That is a given. We need to count our blessings and continue on. God is in control.
(4) Don’t judge by appearance or label. Too often we are guilty of judging people before we get to know them. We hear the labels — “special needs,” “developmentally disabled,” “handicapped,” etc. — and assume the worse. You would be amazed at the abilities of some of those who participated in Special Olympics. There are some really good players who have special skills, whether it be shooting the basketball, rebounding, or making that perfect pass to a wide open teammate.
Matthew 7:1 reminds us, “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (KJV). As I watched the Special Olympians they certainly were non-judgmental toward each other. In fact you could see unconditional love on their part.
My final “takeaway” from watching those special athletes is simply this. They are children of God, just like me and you. We are to love them as God loves us. If you have folks with special needs in your church, don’t avoid them as we often do. Show them the same love and respect that God shows each of us.