My son is 9 years old.
He’s always wanted to be good at a sport.
He played soccer at ages 4 and 9. He did okay, never scored a goal.
He played T-Ball and coach-pitch. He held his own.
He played basketball for two seasons and scored only once.
He’s tried other sports here and there: tennis, swimming.
After he watches a football game on TV, he grabs his football and wants to go out to play catch.
When he sees highlight reels of Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan, he wants to shoot hoops.
He sees excellence – and wants desperately to know what that feels like.
I won’t lie. As his mom, I have indulged in the occasional flight of fancy about him being a successful athlete. When he dove into a pool at 18 months of age and swam across it, yes, I thought about whether he might be the next Michael Phelps. Each time he tries a new sport, I wonder, will this be the thing that reveals his true talent? Will he ever be an athlete?
6 months ago, he earned his black belt in TaeKwonDo – an achievement that was 2.5 years in the making. It wasn’t easy. He is tall and lanky and the elegant moves of martial arts don’t come easy to him. But he persisted. He faced adversity. He sparred junior-high boys twice his age and got his nose bloodied and still had to get back in there to fight.
As I read much of the USADA’s 200-page report on the investigation into the USPS cycling team’s doping, and right now, as I watch part of your interview with Oprah Winfrey, I realized something.
My son is more of an athlete than you have ever been, or ever will be.
He may not have vivid yellow jerseys on his wall or millions in the bank from endorsements. He may not ever grace the floor of Madison Square Garden or the grass of Wimbledon. Who knows? He may never play another sport for the rest of his life.
But he can look at his collection of worn and tattered martial arts belts and know that he honestly earned every single one, Mr. Armstrong.
Do you know what the values of TaeKwonDo are? Honor. Courtesy. Perseverance. Self-control. Integrity. Courage. Community. Strength. Humility. Knowledge.
A wonderful set of life values – not just for martial arts students, but for any athlete – any person, really.
My son lives ALL of the tenets of TaeKwonDo, and you, none. With your middle finger stuck defiantly up in the air, you touted a single value:
It’s not how you win. Just win.
My son’s tightly calibrated moral compass doesn’t have that setting.
I’ll bet that sometime long ago, when you were a 9 year-old boy, your moral compass didn’t have it either.
I wonder what caused the calibration of your values to be thrown so off kilter. Money, fame, maybe just a competitive streak gone awry. Maybe we’ll never really know.
But I know this: the word “athlete” means something very different to you than it does to me. Your definition is full of the stuff that makes this world ugly: cheat, lie, bully, intimidate. My definition involves something much more noble: an athlete is a person who uses sport to exemplify a life of excellence and honest achievement.
Once, your victories were the stuff a little boy’s hopes and dreams were made of. Now, the shining lights of real athletes – my kid and so many others like him – cast long shadows on your hollow legacy.
I have to thank you for helping me realize the greatness that is in my own child. My sincerest hope for you is that someday, you are able to rediscover the true meaning of the word athlete. Somewhere inside of you is the 9 year-old boy you once were. He’s waiting to help you re-calibrate your compass.