Scouting Is Better than Sports

Spring is recruiting season for Scouts and so my Troop, like all of them, is reaching out to parents who want after-school activities.

The hardest part is watching some parents balk. Some just disappear and when you ask you discover, more often than not, that the boy is going to be concentrating on some sport. Athletics is more involved than ever and being competitive means playing four, five even six days a week for months. The parents seem almost ashamed to say their son doesn’t have time for camping and exploring the great outdoors because of his commitment to a team.

Too many parents tell me, “Bobby wants to go camping but he’s committed to football or soccer or lacrosse.” The coaches require total participation and skipping a game or a practice often leads to benching. If my son was more into sports, I would probably be forced to do the same thing.

The competition is so fierce that I thought it was worth setting out some of the reasons why I think Scouting is better than sports. While they both teach many of the same lessons about cooperation and competition, Scouting is set up in a different way that makes it fundamentally different from sports. (Yes, there are great things about sports too, but the benching gives coaches too much power to win the battle. Let them write their own piece. This is mine.)

While I have no problem with boys who are genuinely driven to play a particular sport, I wonder how many of the boys know this in junior high. Often I hear through friends that the parents are sure their son has a chance to earn a scholarship to play the sport for a college team. Some even float the idea of making the Olympic team. In many cases, the parents are pushing the sports not the kid.

If you’re one of the parents considering what to do with your child, I hope you’ll pause a moment and make sure you’re choosing the best thing for your son.

Here are my reasons why Scouting is better:

Scouting is Outing — We hear this all of the time. And the SC stands for “summer camp.” Most Scoutmasters aim to get the boys outdoors at least one weekend each month. There are canoe trips, sailing expeditions, cave tours, fishing trips and sometimes just plain old hikes. Each gets the boys outside where their bodies can do anything but sit in front of a video game console or behind a desk under fluorescent lights.

Yes, it’s true that many sports are played outside, but they’re always in tightly controlled environments with sculpted fields and more and more often, artificial turf. The passes are smoother when you play on a rug. Some even use indoor practice fields now so the sports are just more indoors time. Scouting heads for the real outdoors.

Scouting Pushes Boys Out of their Shell — Just getting out of the house and the schoolyard makes a big difference for a boy. One father told me proudly that his son used to be afraid of spiders but after one year in a Troop, his son thought sleeping in a pile of leaves was easy.

Many sports are so focused that it’s considered a challenge to move from right field to center field. Too many kids start playing defense or offense in soccer and never switch to the other side. Yes sports pushes our children, but all too often it’s to do the same thing again and again. Athletics creates narrow lanes for children. Scouting pushes boys outside their comfort.

Scouting Embraces Variety — My troop rarely schedules more than one hike a year, but only because we need time for horseback riding, sailing, canoeing, scuba diving and fishing. There are too many ways to explore.

But the outdoor program is only the most visible part of Scouting. A big portion is devoted to planning for careers and exploring. Last year the Troop went to a welding shop. One boy tells me that his favorite trip was the one when he took his first lesson in flying an small single-engine airplane.

There’s little variety in sports. There was a time when kids could play different sports in different seasons but that time is fading as the seasons grow longer. Kids are pushed to specialize in 6th grade.

While any football player could talk for hours about the complex plays the team designs, the basic game plan is pretty standard. Sometimes you pass and sometimes you run. Every once and a bit, the coach calls a trick play that wakes everyone up. In Scouting, you’re often waking up somewhere new each trip.

Scouting Engages Danger — One leader I know says that Scouting is all about feeding the boys love of danger — but in a safe way. The boys get knives in Cub Scouts, fire as Webelos, rifles as Boy Scouts and pistols as Venturing Scouts. It’s a gradual process.

Some will be aghast. Indeed one mom brought her son by to try out the scouts but never came back when she heard we were taking the boys to learn shotgun shooting the following weekend.

Scouting is actually the best place to learn dangerous things because they are taught as skills to be mastered not fruit that is forbidden. One article in the New York Times explains the importance of engaging danger not hiding it.

“Young children who make a fire alone often won’t tell adults for fear of punishment.” explains the piece. “ Even worse, they sometimes hide after setting a fire and end up dying from smoke inhalation.”

So this is why we encourage the boys to learn to master dangerous things like rock climbing, welding, small aircraft, horseback riding and more.

Boys Choose the Focus — There’s no way one human can explore all of the corners of scouting. From the hundreds of merit badges to the four high adventure bases, no one has enough time in their life to do it all.

So the boys in the troop pick what works best for them. If the group likes the water, they’ll gravitate to long canoe trips or sailing adventures. If the boys feel more drawn to the mountains, they’ll climb and hike. The indoor pursuits vary too. Some boys in my troop want to to work on Game Design merit badge and some want to do Automobile Mechanics.

Sports have entered a baroque level of specialization with little room for boys to dabble. Scouting embraces exploring.

Scouting Builds Real Cooperation — If the patrol doesn’t work together to cook dinner, the patrol doesn’t eat. The boys figure this out very quickly when it’s getting dark and their stomachs are growling.

In sports, teams cooperate when their coaches tell them to. That great pass or cool coordinated play looks like they’re working in synchrony until you realize that’s just how the coach designed it. Many plays are so scripted that the clever passes or clutch movers were dictated by a coach with a chalkboard.

Scouting Transcends Competition — One of the hardest parts of sports is that way that only one team wins. It doesn’t matter if both teams work hard, only one gets to be the official winner. Coaches like to talk up the notion of dedication and focus but at the end of the season only one team wins the World Series. No amount of pluck or grit will change that. Sixty-eight teams start the NCAA Basketball tournament and sixty-seven end up being eliminated. Oh, we’re all smart enough to recognize just how great it can be to be in the Sweet Sixteen or the Elite Eight, but the nature of sport is designed to limit the success to one team. Everyone else is a failure.

And then there’s the flip side. It doesn’t matter if both teams are terrible, one will still win. Everyone can both play poorly but the rules guarantee that one side will be deemed a success. In a weak conference, there’s still one champion.

Scouting doesn’t have that structural limitation. If everyone works hard, everyone ends up with the merit badge. If only half do the work, then only half gets rewarded. If everyone is a slacker, everyone goes home empty handed. There’s no requirement that one and only one be designated the official winner.

Scouting Is a Chance to Do Things Together — A friend of mine who is rather high up in the Scouting hierarchy likes to skip over all of the hoo-rah hype when he talks about Scouting. “It’s just an excuse to do things with your boy.” he says.

And it is, but it’s more involved. Most parents sit on the sidelines at athletic events or sit in the audience at plays. Oh, they talk during the rides there and back, but for the most part the parents are outsiders and spectators. The parents who take the time to go on scout trips get to work with the boys as the boys plan the meals or work through the activities. There’s a fair amount of spectating but there’s also a fair amount of working as semi-colleagues.

The best part is that many badges require working together. I used the Home Repair badge to push my son into helping fix three faucets and install a water filter. Oh, I could have ordered him to help or assigned it as an official chore, but somehow the badge was a carrot that we worked toward together. This is just one example. In many cases, Scouting is an excuse for boys and adults to work together.

Scouting Makes Us a Colleague of Our Sons — At the beginning, the boys need to learn too much and the adults do all of the teaching. But by the time the scouts are in their older years, say 14 or so, they become virtual equals. Their bodies have grown and now they’re outpacing their fathers on the trail. They know how to cook and run every part of a camping trip and so they become equals.

The fathers I know who go on high adventure trips to places like Philmont or Seabase rave about the adventure — and the camaraderie. The boys and the adults form a crew and work closely together to explore together.

Scouting Is a Chance to Learn About Other Boys — We all know our kids too well. Sometimes we even know a bit about our children’s friends. But Scouting exposes us to other boys of the same age and lets us get to know them by working with them. Oh sure, athletics may teach us that Michael has a awesome butterfly stroke or Russell is a bangup quarterback, but those are only parts of their lives. Scouting touches on more and exposes more of their personality.

Scouting Builds Communities for Adults — Yes, the parents sitting on the side lines have plenty of time to talk and bond. Yes, there’s a fair amount of structure that must be negotiated. Someone must decide who will slice up the oranges. But for the most part it’s very passive.

Scouting parents usually end up taking part. Few things beat rafting, caving and camping for building bonds with other parents. You’re not sitting still, you’re usually taking part.

The Odds for Sports Success Are Long — One of the terrible consequences of insisting on there being one winner is that there are many losers and the odds of ending up a so-called loser are pretty high.

Very few boys grow up to play in the major leagues and the sad fact is that there are few athletic outlets for those who fall short. There are few minor leagues in football or basketball and the baseball minor leagues are designed to groom players for the majors, not give everyone a chance to play.

Even the college options aren’t great. There aren’t many options for a promising high school athlete to continue in college. Many schools don’t put much effort into college sports and the ones that do often approach it in a pre-professional way.

I like to say that every camping trip without a serious injury is a total success. Even if we get rained out or never make it to the peak, the boys (and dads) have an adventure.

The Definition of Success is Broad — Too many kids drop out of competitive sports by the time they are 13 or 14. They see that they’re not built the right way or granted enough natural athletic talent to be a big success so they make a rational decision. If you’re not going to make the high school team or get a D1 scholarship, there are other ways to spend your time. All too often, the coaches only care about the kids with big potential.

The problem is that the definition of success is too narrow. While coaches talk a good game about character development — and they usually mean it — the success depends upon putting the ball in the goal or the net or the hole. The kids who do well at that continue and those who don’t fade away.

Scouting has many measures of success. Yes, the Eagle badge is the most prominent but there are many paths to it. Boys who hate to swim can earn badges in cycling, for instance. Boys who don’t like merit badges can still be patrol leaders or earn awards like the “50 Miler” given to scouts who make 50 mile backpacking or canoe trips. The boys who never make Patrol Leader can be Quartermaster. The list is long and varied.

Failure Is Encoded into Sports — Yes, we are smart enough to see through this. We have crafted narratives about how failure builds character and spurs us to work harder. This is all true but it doesn’t change the bitterness of the pill.

Scouting doesn’t push failure. Yes, Scouts fail all of the time and on good days they learn from their mistake but failure isn’t a guaranteed part of the equation and this makes the lessons more real. If the food isn’t purchased for the trip, everyone goes hungry. There’s no complex rationalization about how the referee was biased or the other team was more highly ranked. The trip was a failure and everyone must do better.

It’s not just the labels because most people are able to see past them and find positive lessons and memories from a losing season. The fact that there’s always one loser takes the sting out of losing.

Scouting Exercise Lasts For a Lifetime — Football is a great game, but it’s all but impossible to play after our early 20s. Aside from the quarterbacks who live in their protected pockets, all of the other players just get their bodies destroyed. Most are usually out of the game by their early 20s.

The same is true for the less violent sports too. There are few older baseball or hockey players and even relatively collision-free sports like track generate too many injured joints.

Scouting embraces athletic endeavors like long distance backpacking, sailing, rock climbing, skiing and many other vigorous activities that can be done long into our fifties and sixties. These skills last almost a lifetime.

Scouting Teaches Life Skills — Thanks to the miracles of modern science, most of us don’t build fires very often. And aside from shoes, many don’t tie knots either. But compared to throwing an oblate spheroid or putting a puck in a net, even the most obscure scouting skills are quite useful — especially if there’s an emergency and you need to fall back on campfires and knots.

Many parts of Scouting are designed to prepare the boys for leadership. Merit badges in Citizenship aim to teach how government works. Others like Home Repairs or Automobile Maintenance build real talents.

Scouting Embraces All Body Sizes — There’s nothing worse than being a small linebacker or a tall running back in football. There are few great long distance runners who are very tall. Too many athletic careers are determined by our DNA. It doesn’t matter if you work harder or if you want it more, you’re not going to play center in a competitive basketball program if you’re under six feet tall.

There are moments in Scouting where size does matter but they’re few and far between. High adventure trips to places like Philmont, for instance, require boys to be 14. Older boys have more mature bodies and can handle the longer distances.

For the most part, a boy’s future success in Scouting isn’t affected by his DNA. The requirements are written so that boys who apply themselves can generally succeed. When there are legitimate limitations like congenital birth defects, there are alternatives that generally work well-enough. The program has found paths that still test boys who weren’t born with the same advantages.

Scouting Teaches More Valuable Lessons — Schools are focused on academic subjects but there are too many topics that fall outside of their narrow sphere. Scouting pushes many of them like personal money management or family life. Many of these basic lessons from life should be taught more often but they aren’t.

And then there’s no doubt that the leadership lessons from Scouting transcend anything that the kids could ever get sitting passively in a chair in a classroom.

Scouting Tries To Be Politically Neutral — One scoutmaster told me that the recent decision to overturn the ban on gay scouts was just the kind of compromise that left everyone unhappy. After all, individual troops could still write rules that reflected their sponsoring organization which could be a church. Everyone could find something to be upset about.

The last few years hasn’t been easy for most people associated with scouting, in part because the relentless focus on sex and issues like transgendered scouts has so little to do with the adventures that Scouting aims to provide. Hiking, camping or earning merit badges have nothing to do with the debate about bedroom activities and so the debate is essentially symbolic (albeit important).

These debates lie hidden in the world of sports by somehow the leagues have avoided the political pressure. While the major league executives profess a completely politically bland message, the fact remains that there are virtually no openly gay athletes in any of the major leagues. The most prominent one from the NFL, Michael Sams, didn’t get his contract renewed.

The point is that parents who are supposedly upset about the politics of the scouts may not realize just how much is hidden in the world of sports. At least the scouts are addressing these matters directly and openly. No one may be happy with the current status, but there’s a process in place.

Scouting Scandals Are a Good Sign — It’s not that the sexual abuse is a good thing; it’s just that it’s good we actually heard about the problems. Scouting started holding investigations and keeping files on bad leadership decades ago. The executives often failed to react and when they did they often failed to react strongly enough, especially when the evidence was less than perfect, but they left a paper trail that drew the lawyers in for the kill.

The abuse problem will always be a terrible part of Scouting’s history, but the important fact is that the organization is working hard to prevent it from happening again. Many youth athletic organizations still don’t investigate their leadership at all. Scandals appear in dribs and drabs. If you want to see some blank stares, ask the local league how they conduct their background checks. In the past, there were no investigations or records because it was all easier for everyone. We may never know the depth of their problems because most of the leagues never kept any records or reported any issues.

Many scouters believe that scouting became a focus for a problem that pervades all of society just because they left a paper trail by trying to fight the problem from the beginning.

Scouting is Up to You and Your Son — Let’s end on a positive note. Sports leagues do one thing well and we don’t ask them to do something else. We don’t drag your son to a tackle football league and ask them to start playing flag football.

Scout troops are lead by the boys. If they’re doing too much hiking and your son wants to fish, your son has the chance to lead the troop and set the future schedule. This doesn’t mean the other boys and parents will follow — it’s all up to them too — but the opportunity is there.

Unlike many team sports, the boys are officially in charge of what happens in the Troop. The Senior Patrol Leader meets with the rest of the leadership to plan the trips and then the adults handle the details. Yes, the adults have a certain amount of veto power, especially when the boys want to do something impractical or foolish, but for the most part the boys make many of the decisions.

Sports are rarely so democratic. Even in pro football, grown men must do what voice in the little earpiece tells them to do. Pro baseball players need to watch the coach for the signs before doing anything. When your kids take the field, they’ll be doing exactly what some adult tells them to do.

So embrace the opportunity and choose scouting. It won’t be easy — but that’s the point.