November 9th, 2008

summer reading

Turn-About is Fair Play

Yesterday dawned about the same as it has for the past week or so: with furious showers of rain that was, at moments, driven sideways by a brisk wind. The kind of weather, in other words, that is absolutely made for curling up with a good book under a comfortable blanket with a hot beverage. But that's not what I did yesterday. It was my daughter's final game for this soccer season, so instead I watched the sky with mingled dread and resentment, knowing a wet and chilly day was looming in the near future. I complained to my husband that I really couldn't see the point of making kids play in such weather, it wasn't like it was a championship game or anything like that. He replied as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, "Because it's the last game of the season!"

As I parked the car, I spotted a few kids who were exiting the field of battle covered in a thick layer of mud from face to feet. As my daughter plays the goalie position during part of every game and her favorite thing is diving for a save, I knew that was in my near future as well. I looked to the lone towel riding in my car's back seat. The enormity of the miscalculation in bringing only one towel came in a swift realization.

However, just before her game started, a near miracle occurred: the rain stopped. The clouds continued to skid and boil across the sky at a furious pace, but no rain. Huzzah! Maybe it wouldn't be so bad after all. Thinking that was of course the signal for my daughter to get a shove right into the mud before even five minutes of play had passed. Ah well. It set the tone for the entire game and we parents commented on the sidelines about the fun laundry chore we had in store.

Watching her team play has been an exercise in frustration. Things like the ball coming to a complete halt in standing water yesterday added a twist to the game. The ball could not be counted on to move at all unless it were kicked into the air. Since it was wet, that was difficult to achieve, so the game played on in a herky-jerky fashion. All of that wasn't the frustrating thing, though: the frustrating thing was that throughout the entire season, the coaches have not coached in a way that brought about any improvement in technique or play.

I'm not a very competitive person. Or at least, not really in the context of competing with others. There is of course a kind of competition in the business world which I can get into, so I suppose I have a little of that drive in me. Mostly, though, my drive comes from wanting more from myself. There's a lot tied up in how I came to turn that into what I now think of as a positive thing; for years I found myself constantly comparing myself to others and always, always finding myself lacking. I had to turn that impulse to put myself down to something else somehow if I was ever to grow any confidence in myself. Meanwhile, I'm married to one of the most competitive people I've ever met. He has that drive to win. He played sports throughout his childhood and felt losses of games like a stab in the heart. He hated to lose. It's been a real lesson for both of us coming to understand this scale of competitiveness and how we're at the opposite end of it.

Given my non-competitive personality, it was a shock to realize I was so very frustrated yesterday that I actually thought that even *I* could be a better coach than these two have been. I know next to nothing about sports and even less about motivating others. And I do realize that these coaches are all volunteers and they're doing a lot committing themselves to a season, even if the season is a losing one. I never complain to them or anyone besides my husband or those who have no connection to the teams - I don't want to come across as less than grateful for what they do and the work they put in. But, GAH!, it drives me nuts to see things like one of the girls walking - walking for chrissakes! - in the middle of the game, and yet being rewarded by getting lots of play time and in her favorite position. It drives me nuts to see mistakes repeated throughout an entire season that ONE SENTENCE OF COACHING ADVICE would be enough to correct. Approximately five girls actually played yesterday, carrying the weight of the whole team as they put forth effort and advanced the whole group, only to see all that effort lost when other team mates did (or more to the case, didn't do) their part.

It all came as a surprise to me, actually, how very much I took yesterday's game as a kind of insult. It's the way my husband feels all of the time when it comes to losing and it certainly gave me a new insight into that competitive drive. When my daughter was younger, I absolutely agreed that the main point of it all was to inculcate a love for the sport, give kids an opportunity for regular exercise, teach them that when you are part of a team that means you've taken on a responsibility to not let others down, and that winning a game should be the last thing on the list coaches were trying to promote.

These kids are older now, though. If they didn't love the sport and know the rest, they wouldn't be playing. I think it's time to remove some of the blinders and let them understand what it means to win and what it means to lose. It's time to stop playing that part of sports down. Because the world is a competitive place and the truth is that we all have to compete in some way to succeed in it. I don't think it's a bad thing for kids of middle school age to start to understand that you don't walk through a game that requires running if one expects to win it. I wouldn't want winning or losing to be the sole focus, but I would want it to become at least one of them. I also want them to understand that there is also something to the element of leadership that makes a critical difference when it comes to success or failure and that it's important to know how to either choose a good one or be a good one.

You know, I really disdained sports for most of my life. It wasn't until my daughter started playing team sports that I came to see that they can teach valuable lessons. The constant stream of scandals and goings on in the professional sports world is example enough of that: if you let it, discussing those scandals can be a way to examine some of life's most interesting questions. What is loyalty worth? How important are the things one does off the field and does success on the field truly translate to success at life? What does it mean to let yourself down? Or others? How should and does money affect one's personality?

It's quite a turn-about for me, really, to be at this mental place where I am. How did I turn from someone who could care less about competing, about sports, about winning or losing to someone teeth-grindingly frustrated by what I see as an entirely preventable loss of a game? I mean, these kids on my daughter's team can play - but they haven't been given the kind of instruction that helps them go from knowing technique and rules to truly playing as a team and stopping the bone-headed mistakes.

I put this turn-about all down to parenthood. There's been no other thing in my life that's forced me to re-examine myself and my prejudices; there's been nothing else like it for getting me to see things in a different way. It's changed me, no question. And as with all other aspects of parenthood, there's nothing else like it that's as hard as it is rewarding. It's like the work I'm going to put into getting daughter's mud smeared uniform clean again along with the satisfaction I'm going to feel when I accomplish that. Multiplied by infinity.