The Fifth Lap
Last weekend, Austrian daredevil skydiver Felix Baumgartner paused. There he sat for a moment, on the edge of his high-tech space balloon, 24 miles above the surface of the earth, on the verge of doing something no human had ever done before.
Over a hundred thousand feet below and several hours removed, Rice athletes paused. There they sat for a moment, in a locker room, on the bench or on the starting line, in Texas, Carolina, Kentucky or Alabama on the verge of doing something many people had done before.
Then, Baumgartner literally did what the Rice athlete then did figuratively: He jumped.
One of the reasons I am so passionate about sports specifically, and extracurricular activities more generally, is that they teach lessons and develop skills that are incredibly difficult to cultivate in other settings. One of those hard-earned lessons is how to take a step away from the safety of the known into an unknown full of risk and possibility.
Obviously, the stakes that come with starting a game or a meet are not the same as those that come with free-falling from the edge of space. And this is not to say that sports are transforming kids around the world into a generation of daredevils (I've competed for years but still have a hard time jumping off a six-foot diving board, much less an airplane).
The parallel, however, is a great visual illustration of this important lesson.
Whenever an athlete (or a musician or performer) steps into competition, he takes on the very real risk of an extremely public failure in something he cares deeply about and has worked hard for. This idea was on full display in Rice sports last weekend. Football faced the weight of being one of the central pieces of the Centennial Celebration. Soccer and volleyball faced the increased scrutiny and pressure that come with being near the top of the conference standings.
And both men's and women's cross country competed in their most visible, high-profile non-championship meets of the season.
All of these competitions provided great opportunities for success. But in order to have a chance at those successes, they required taking on the accompanying risk of failure.
This ability to take on challenges despite the risk of failure is applicable far beyond the realm of athletics. It applies to everything from starting a new business, to pioneering a new medical procedure, to taking an unconventional diplomatic approach, to just asking out that cute girl that lives down the hallway.
Those who have competed or performed have taken on such risks before and have almost certainly having failed at some point along the way. They are therefore much better prepared to take on opportunities when they come about.
This lesson is just one of the reasons continued support for competitive athletics and other competitive extracurricular activities is critical, especially at the elementary, junior high and high school levels.
Being competitive is one of the key elements for truly impactful extracurriculars. Yes, the fun, fair, positive soccer leagues of the world where everyone plays, everyone wins and everyone gets a trophy probably have their place.
But every kid deserves the chance to lose, whether that's losing the game, getting benched or cut from the team, not making All-State band, or not getting the lead in the play. It is the best way for children to learn how to take on that risk, how to thrive under that pressure, and if they do fail, how to get up and go after it again.
As we become parents, little-league coaches and community members, the responsibility will fall to us to raise the next generation. If we are going to be successful, we have to continue to let them compete, to let them learn to take those risks.
The responsibility falls to us to prepare them to make the jumps no human has ever made before.
More from The Rice Thresher
On Thursday, sophomore distance runner Grace Forbes proved to the rest of the country what her Conference USA opponents and Rice teammates have known for years – she’s one of the fastest runners in the country. Competing at the NCAA championships in Eugene, Ore. for the second consecutive year, Forbes, took second place in the 10,000-meter, the best finish by an Owl at the NCAAs in over a decade. According to Forbes, who missed the indoor season and the first month of the outdoor season due to extreme fatigue later diagnosed as an autoimmune disorder, the result was a testament to the work she’s put in to overcome an incredibly challenging year.
Five Owls will be heading to next week’s NCAA outdoor track and field championships, after qualifying at the NCAA West Preliminaries which ran May 25 through 28. Headlining the meet for Rice was sophomore distance-runner Grace Forbes, who took first place in the 10,000 meters for the second consecutive year. Forbes will be joined in Eugene, Ore., by sophomore thrower Tara Simpson-Sullivan, junior thrower Erna Gunnarsdottir, senior thrower James McNaney and sophomore vaulter Alex Slinkman. Jon Warren, head coach of the men’s track and field program, said that he was impressed not only by the five qualifiers, but by all 13 Owls who participated over the course of the week in Fayetteville, Ark.
The Conference USA outdoor track and field championships saw Rice’s men’s team place third with 121 points — their best conference championship performance since 2005 — and the women’s team place fifth with 88 points. According to men’s head coach Jon Warren, he was proud to see the work his team put in all season be on full display at the meet.