Friday, June 13, 2008

Lessons Learned from Riding the Bench

Whatever lessons you failed to master as a kid, come back to bite you as an adult.

When I was a kid, I absolutely rotted at sports. This was back in the Jurassic era, when kids were assigned to A and B teams, and you could even be a second stringer on the B team, or not make it at all. I doggedly tried out every year for every sport and consistently made the B second string or sat out the season. I drooled over the idea that some day, if I just worked hard enough, I'd make the A team and get a ribbon, a trophy or maybe even a letter. I was a victim of too many After School ABC specials. I even prayed for this daily. When I wouldn’t make it, I was often reminded, “Sometimes, God’s answer is “No.” but being a bullhead, I figured I’d keep asking.

Fast forward to adulthood, when the one letter I did manage to get remains locked in a memory box somewhere, the wisdom of 25 years sans trying out for A-teams has informed me that not having your name on the list is survivable. That lesson isn’t being taught today, at least not to kids.

In the enlightened 21st century, children now have endless options for participation in “non competitive” sports, meaning anyone can play. The term “non competitive” is hopelessly misleading, as I see antics on and off the fields of play that rival the steroid scandals in cycling and judge rigging in ice dancing. Competition may have been removed from the play, but it hasn’t been extracted from the parents. Parents who made the team when they were kids on merit, are determined to show that their kids would have made the cut in the old school. I know of one mom who played her four year old up with first graders. She lied on the application. No one had the temerity to ask, "What was the point?"

Spotting high school talent scouts with note pads scoping out forth grade CYO games, I started to snicker. I was told very seriously by another mother, if your name gets circulated, you could get a free ride by the time you get to applying for private high schools. Looking at the field of boys, all of whom I had personally seen have long discussions about which pokemon was best and which character in Harry Potter they would be, I wondered why any adult would spend time projecting what a 9 year old might become as at 15?

I thought things would be better when some of my children showed promise in the sports of their choosing. One of my girls seemed a whiz at basketball. She was even invited to join a select team. The initial pride at having a “talented” player went out the window when the coach explained; we would have to pay a four hundred dollar registration fee, plus money for uniforms and three nights of practice a week. Maybe I would consider this if my daughter was in high school and it meant college scholarships, but this was third grade! Besides, at $400 per ten weeks, I figured I could save for college and maybe we wouldn't need a scholarship!

The parents in the league looked at me with pity for denying my daughter this shot at the “big leagues” for a reason as flimsy and petty as money. I saw a mother tsk at me and murmur, “What a shame, her daughter showed real promise.” This refusal to commit was a moral failing on my part and doomed my daughter to a lifetime of lackluster accomplishment in the world of sports. If so, well, at least I know what sin I committed to wreck her life. Given her other talents, I’ll take that chance.

Another of my sons is a natural athlete. If there is a ball in play, he’s on it. He’s good. He’s fast, he understands the game and he cares about sports. It must be a recessive gene. Anyway, I couldn’t wait to see him on the field. Finally, it would be my kid everyone cheered. I dreamed happily of watching him score a goal and say to the camera, “Hi Mom!”

Like most fantasies, reality was far uglier.

In his first practice, my son did a gloating dance as he scored on a kid half his size, from his own team! Then there was the fight he had with a girl because she stole the ball from him. I'm yelling "Red Card!" and the coach explained, they didn't do that at this level of play. Yes, he still moves like a gazelle but I dread showing up at the sidelines. I feel I need to carry a sign that simply says, “Yes, it’s my child. I’m sorry and I’m working on it.”

The problem is, he’s really good at sports. He’s just not a good sport. At one game, when my child was being particularly aggressive and had been warned by the referee, I shouted to the coach, “BENCH HIM!” Everyone else watching the game looked at me as if I were nuts until I explained. “I’m his mother.”

Given that he’d scored the only points our team had made this season, the coach shook his head. I’d be forced to teach the virtue of humility some other way…like maybe when he had kids.

The years have resulted in a treasure trove of ribbons and trophies in my house that signify having played a sport, having been a good sport, having been good at a sport and having simply showed up to watch a sport. As I picked up the feather duster to remove the recent cobwebs, I pined for the days when you might not make the team. The morals learned from not winning, from riding the bench were clear; Not everyone is good at the same thing; Life isn’t fair; Sometimes things happen; Practice and work hard and maybe; all these life lessons came from not making the cut.

Suddenly, making the B teams didn’t seem like it was such a bad thing. And I heard God lovingly laughing at and with me, “Now you’re finally getting it.” And my daughter came home, "Mom, can I try out for competitive softball this Summer?"

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