Youth Sports And The Power Of Inclusion

In some parts of the country, football is king when it comes to youth sports. In others, baseball is. I, on the other hand, am from Indiana, and that means one word: basketball. To that end, I want to share a tale that comes from the heart of a dusty old school gym — a story that went a long way toward teaching me the power of inclusion.

I’ve never been the type of person who excels at sports, but I love being part of a team. In my time playing youth sports, I was much better suited to the practice squad or equipment room. One year, I shared my role of equipment manager with several people, including a special-needs student. We’ll call him Dusty. He had Down syndrome, and he was one of the nicest, most genuine people you could ever hope to meet.

Dusty was a fantastic equipment manager. When it came to the actual game, however, he always declined to contribute during practice. Despite being a great guy, he was too shy to get out there and flash his skills. My teammates were always very accepting and nice to Dusty, but one day, they truly went above and beyond.

It was a rainy day, I remember. As I walked into the gym for practice, I heard good-natured cajoling: “C’mon, Dusty. Just once. We want you to show us how you shoot!”

At first, I thought there might’ve been some teasing going on, but the team allowed him to flourish when he finally accepted their invitation. They weren’t too obvious about it, but Dusty got nearly all the passes; his defenders, skilled ballplayers in their own right, always made sure he had space to take the shot and a clear lane to attempt the layup.

This might sound small, but think about it: More than 10 junior-high athletes, all coordinating to ensure a fellow student felt good about his role on the team, and more importantly, himself. That’s not just impressive; it’s heartwarming beyond words.

Dusty was a regular on the practice floor after that — not an every-time contributor, but he didn’t need to be. He was a member of the team. You could see it in the smile on his face, in the confidence in his step, and in the way he carried himself as he handed out water. He was happy and genuine before, but afterward, he was clearly thrilled to be in the gym every single time he was there.

I don’t know what became of Dusty or my teammates. I moved to Indianapolis shortly after, and the rest is history. That said, the small act of kindness I witnessed that day taught me volumes: In youth sports or in sporting activities at any age, always take the chance to make someone else feel included — they won’t be the only person who feels great because of it.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons