As published in The Rye Record on March 26, 2012
When I was a kid, I didn’t play any sports. I don’t mean I didn’t play very well or competitively, I mean I never played any sports at all. At recess, I specialized in hanging out, a skill I mastered and carried with me into adulthood. At gym, I’d secure a spot in far, far left blacktop, where I was sure to be safe from an aggressive kickball coming my way. If a ball happened to get far enough to potentially reach me, I’d calmly back up until it was more the third base kid’s problem than mine. You sporty types might think of me as that kid; I preferred to think of myself as more like The Fonz.
So when I grew up and married a man who, according to Canadian legend (his mother), was an All Star State Champion hockey player by age 4, I ended up having a bunch of kids who are really into sports. And when I moved to a town that seems to fuel itself on children’s athletics, I found myself in seriously alien territory. But like Magellan, Margaret Mead, or The Bachelorette, I entered the realm cautiously, gathering information in a take-me-to-your-leader sort of way. Who are these hundreds of parents who come out to watch 5 year olds play soccer at 8 a.m. on a Saturday? What’s their angle?
Like a lot of kids in town, mine play at least one sport a season, often on multiple teams for the same sport. It takes up all of their free time. I initially tried to temper the sports mania with some activities that I thought they might be able to use later in life, reasoning that, statistically, only .2 kids (that’s not even one whole kid) currently in the Rye City School District will become a professional athlete. And I hate to say it, but if their mother is 5’2” (and me), the statistics don’t sway in their favor.
I tried to steer my children away from what I saw as organized running around and more toward things like reading and playing the piano. But many years and many rented musical instruments later, I gave up. I finally get it: Team sports are giving them exactly the life skills they are going to need for a future of strength, resilience, and commitment.
As far as this town’s obsession with its children’s sports goes, I’m all in.
I first started to understand the value of team sports when my oldest son was in third grade and played on his first basketball team. The gym was crowded, and he dribbled down the court as point guard, looking for someone to pass to. He passed the ball over the intended recipient’s head into an opponent’s hands, triggering a turnover. My heart sank. I was sure he would just sit down in the middle of the court and weep. I mean, who wouldn’t? He’d screwed up, after all, in front of all these people. I reached for my bag, figuring we’d make a quick exit and maybe move to a neighboring town. But with an invisible shrug, he ran down to the other end of the court and kept playing. For you athletes, this probably seems like no big deal. For me, I was watching my 8-year-old child master a level of resilience that I didn’t learn until age 30. His coach’s impassive face telegraphed to my son, “This is not the end of the world.” In an instant I saw the future possibility of my son getting fired or dumped or sick and knowing that he could get through it and keep playing.
I also underestimated the value of being part of a team. These kids learn how devastating it can be if a few players don’t show up and they have to forfeit. They learn that if you commit to doing something, you have to do it even if you’re sleepy / cranky / busy. They learn the importance of being the kid who passed the ball to the one who scored. And if the scorer gets all the attention at the end of the game, they learn that a job well done feels good even without the praise. In this sense, they start to see that it’s not always about them, and they are part of something bigger and interconnected. It’s practically cosmic.
Perhaps most importantly, kids on teams learn how to interact with adults who are not their parents or teachers. It’s an in-between relationship, more formal than the one they have with their parents but more casual than with their teachers. It’s both subservient (the kids have to run suicides if the coach says so) and social (the coach will reappear at a birthday party, without his whistle). It’s a relationship outside the role that the child plays in the family and outside the limitations or expectations of their academic performance. It is often a child’s first respectful friendship with an adult, and for my kids these relationships have been invaluable.
As we enter what I like to call The Driving Season, I just want to offer a shout out to these coaches who have built our kids up, year after year. There are the coaches with the great sense of humor who remind my kids that sports are supposed to be fun. There are those who offer rides to games who make my kids feel like their presence at the field is critical. There are those who keep an extra pair of socks in their car who make it okay for me to be forgetful. There’s the coach who buys every soccer player in town a pink jersey to wear during the month of October, reminding us again that we are part of something bigger and more important than ourselves.
While I’m still trying to wrap my head around the concept of “offsides” and the reasoning behind prohibiting more than three seconds in the key, I have finally grasped what all the fuss is about. And I have to say I still do a pretty good job hanging out like The Fonz on the sidelines.