For the Love of the Game

Our two middle school sons play flag football on the same rec league team, and as I watched their first game under the Tuesday night lights, I realized that later, it would sound like they had played on completely different fields. One would strut to the car as if they had won (they did not), and the other would approach, head bowed, teeth clenched.

For the first, it has never mattered if his team wins or loses (unless he’e watching the Packers on tv). If he makes one good catch, it’s a victory. Last night he made two, including a one-handed, over-the-head grab. You should have seen his grin. He’s an “I’m just happy to be here” kind of player. A big guy, coaches play him at center, which means he is involved in every play. But he’s almost as happy standing on the sidelines talking about the game with his coach.

His younger brother has the body of a sports statistician but the mind and competitive will of a quarterback. When he is not leading the charge, he feels ignored. When he is, the opposing team looks larger than life. But he runs smart plays that give his team an edge, and he knows it.

The Blue Jays’ chosen quarterback threw him one pass, which he caught for a two-point conversion. As he held onto the ball in the end zone, I felt that “phew” moment moms feel when we think we know our athletes will be pleased that they played their play well.

I should know him better than that.

As the game wore on, and he was left out of one play after another, I could see the frustration build in those piercing blue eyes all the way from the sidelines. It’s not “I’m just happy to be here” or even “put me in, coach.” It’s “give me the ball,” “let me lead the team.” Even if they had made it to the rec league Super Bowl last night, he would have seen the game as a defeat.

Two boys who love football. Same team. Different game.



Swim Team

I signed my guys up for swim team last year for a few reasons. I wanted them to get some exercise over the summer, to look like they knew what they were doing in the water (as only swim team kids do) and, most important, to make friends and be known by the larger pool community.

Their strokes are looking better. Their stamina has improved. The coaches and lifeguards know them and greet them by name. The younger two boys talk to anyone who shares their lane or swims with them on a relay. They look up to the good swimmers, referring to them with the highest regard, “he’s State,” which really means he is fast enough to swim in the A league championship at the end of the summer.

What I had forgotten from my own childhood was the difference between being “on” the team and “one of them.” This week, in their second year, I witnessed the transition for my oldest and most reserved son, and realized how special that particular series of events is in the life of a child.

First, he made a friend during practice. Together, they helped the coaches unhook the lane ropes. The head coach realized his breaststroke is legal and, making a big deal about it, convinced him to swim it in the next meet.

Simple things, yet out of the blue, he asked for a private lesson to work on his starts and turns. He lingered at the end of the lane ropes after practice all week waiting to take ownership of his new job.

At the meet, he earned a second place in his first breaststroke race. His new friend got the blue ribbon. My son, never the first to reach out, found the winner and gave him a high-five. “We got one-two! Good swim!”

Last year, when he was “on” the team, had I given him the opportunity to skip a meet, he would have seized it in a second. Now that he has felt the magic of becoming “one of them,” he does not want to let that feeling go.

“Guys, we’re flying home at midnight the night before your last meet,” I said, expecting groans and “do we have to swims?”

“Oh, we’re going!”

“But then we’ll have to be late for…”

“Mom, we have to be there. The team needs us.”

My boys may not be “State”, but they got their trophy when they became “one of the team.”

What Happened to the “Play” in “Play Ball”?

I am not an athlete, but my sisters were. I swam on my college club swim team and played a year of Division III junior varsity lacrosse. I rode the bench through high school and college, too slow to catch anyone when I played defense and too uncoordinated to score when I played offense. But it was fun. I got exercise. I made friends. I felt like I was a part of the school community.

No one ever said you are too slow to be on our swim team, and so I managed to score points for the team and cheer for my teammates who scored more. I swam butterfly and even the 200 I.M. when asked, even though it was really hard. I showed up for every practice, and gave it my all. The lacrosse coaches welcomed me because I cheered loudly and was good at teaching new players how to use a lacrosse stick.

Now, eight year olds are being told they are not good enough to play. “Find another team.” “We’re going more competitive.”

Where’s the fun? Where’s the concept that all kids should have the opportunity to be on a team with their friends, to learn to win and lose with grace, to be a good sportsman?

We don’t tell eight year olds who are having trouble learning to read that they shouldn’t come to school anymore. That they are now banned from reading. No, we spend more time with them, put more energy into improving their skills, and sometimes they even benefit from the better-trained teachers. Many of these students end up academically strong later on…but only because they were “kept in the game”.

Music teachers don’t say an eight year old is not allowed to sing in the Spring Concert because she’s off-pitch. Art teachers do not forbid their more artistically-challenged second grader boys from displaying their work on the wall like everybody else.

Of course not!

So why is it okay in sports?

Maybe it’s the college scholarships, the promise of money. Maybe it’s the fact that for this age group most of the coaches are dads, who are devoting a lot of time to volunteer coaching. And the reason they are doing it is to turn out an athlete of their own.

If the athletic programs were starting in school at this age, teachers would encourage everyone to play. Even our Middle School says that anyone who wants to be on a sports team is on the team. So why do our community leagues allow such exclusivity? Isn’t it supposed to be about building community? Passing our love of the game on to our children?

In many cases, parents whose kids are just playing to have fun and be part of a team don’t have the skills or the schedule to coach. So, in exchange, they come to every game, they help out at practice when they can, they bring snacks, and they cheer for every kid…even the ones who only score once all season. They are grateful for their coach and all that he or she is doing for the team.

We are there to cheer on our eight year olds for trying hard, for having the courage to get back in the game when they’ve fallen, for passing the ball to their friend who never scores just to give them another opportunity. We are there to show our children that we are proud when they give a teammate a high-five for a great play, when they cheer from the bench, even when they offer their water bottle to the kid who always forgets one. We cheer for the eight year old athletes who may one day go to college on a scholarship, and we cheer for the ones who just love to play. We cheer for the fact that they are getting better because they are at every practice and every game. And we jump up and down when they score, because the look for us on the sidelines with a smile filled with such joy and pride it could make you cry.

I have seen my kids grow on the field and court in ways they could not in the classroom or at home. It makes me sad that because I cannot coach, they may not play.

I respect parents who volunteer to coach, because of the commitment and patience it requires. I understand they have their reasons, their goals for their kids, which have to preempt the goals for other children. And because I would be a terrible coach, I have to let them make the rules.  But what happens to sports when the “play” is missing from “play ball”? Will the next generation love sports as much as we do?