So What If My Kids Stink at Sports?

Though nothing is certain, it is possible that both of our children may stink at team sports.

I accept this piece of information the way I accept that they don’t sleep in on weekends, or as I accept differences in their personalities, musical tastes, or favorite foods. I also meet it with recognition, for there is no question that if current trends persist, my genetic contribution is 100% the causal factor.

My husband is a wonderful athlete. I knew that piece of information when we were dating, having spied the trophies and “Scholar Athlete” plaques in his parents’ home. But I didn’t really grasp what it meant until, in a quaint moment of fawning crush-dom I attended one of his softball games on the Mall and watched him field a line drive at shortstop and make a throw to first base for the out. In the years that followed, I have watched him sink baseline shots in basketball, throw a perfect spiral down 30 yards of beach on Cape Cod, and carve his skis into fresh snow. He moves with a confidence bestowed on the few who assume without question that their bodies will heed rapid fire messages from their brains about where each fiber and limb needs to be in the next moment. He has a lifetime of muscle memory reassuring him that this will happen. He makes it all look quite beautiful.

And I . . . don’t.

Before we had kids, Amit found my clumsiness somewhat endearing. Like my brother and father before him, he would QB games of touch football, drawing intricate plays on his hand for every able teammate in the huddle before looking at me and saying, “Caroline, you go long.” On one occasion, he returned the moment of fawning crush-dom by delivering a perfectly thrown pass into my hands in the end zone. I was equal parts stunned and elated. It never happened again, but I cherish the memory.

From time to time, I remind him that he married me with clear-eyed, irrefutable notice that I had spent a lifetime being picked last for teams.

Yet, two school-aged kids later, and despite his fervent denials, he is concerned. It was one thing when our daughter failed to embrace D.C.’s ubiquitous Stoddert youth soccer program. We dutifully procured the cleats and knee pads, took photos when she donned her Blue Jaguars jersey, and then sat through three seasons and forty hours of her unveiled disdain for the activity itself. Amit’s eyes rolled back into his skull when she declared that soccer was simply “too runny.” He swore to all who would listen, and those of us trying to tune him out, that when it came to our children being part of a “team sport,” this wasn’t over.

Meanwhile, I did a secret happy dance that, at least as to one child, our lives might not be beholden to travel teams, sidelines indenture alongside unhinged parents, and weekends spent apart to “support” each child’s quest within this narrow category of life’s accomplishments.

Time and again, I would (and still do) ask: Devan plays her guitar, loves her Indian dance lessons, and swims for the joy of it. What’s so wrong with that?

While he hasn’t given up on our daughter, our son is Amit’s second bite at this peculiarly fraught apple. Kian is a big kid, forecasted by our pediatrician to scale past 6 feet one day (score exactly one for my genetic contributions). He is also the single happiest and most contented person I have ever met, which is why when Amit announced that he would be coaching Kian’s first baseball team, I forced a smile and choked back a throat-ful of ambivalence.

From his place at the helm of the Mud Skippers, Amit has now had a chance to see our son among his peer group, a few members of which appear to have been raised in batting cages. While there is a wide range of skill on display, my husband hones in on the outliers, the ones who can already throw a baseball the way a baseball is supposed to be thrown. A small handful can consistently hit the ball well into the outfield. Intellectually, he knows that the vast majority of the team is a sweet display of earnest ineptitude and gooey smiles. But to Amit, the little boy who can already throw a ball properly most certainly has a more capable father who has fulfilled a sacred and timeless promise of parenthood. It pains him viscerally when our little guy launches the ball in a crazy arch along the side of his body, like a soldier unleashing a grenade. When I point out how much distance he was able to achieve with this technique, Amit sighs and shakes his head.

Parenthood is a fascinating journey, replete with opportunities to worry, to doubt, to aspire, and to teach. But there are moments when the issue at hand – in this case, our kids and sports – triggers polar opposite worries in each parent, and the lessons we each feel compelled to impart are in tension. We both agree that, all things being equal, being on a team is a valuable experience that we would like our children to have. But like our respective athletic abilities, all things are rarely equal, and the lens through which we watch our kids lace up their cleats is indelibly shaded by our own experiences.

Despite my limited skills, I too played sports as a kid. In a simpler time, there were enough youth recreation leagues that would take the “dabbler,” who even at the ripe old age of 9 had never dribbled a basketball but was willing to try. If these opportunities exist today, it is sure hard to find them in this achievement-drunk city, but through sponsorships of my small town’s athletic council, or the Rotary Club, or the Church’s CYO, I was able to play Lassie League softball, and basketball, and tennis.

In softball, I would occasionally eke out a single, then jog with my glove to the far, far outfield where I was spared the stress of ever having to make a play on defense. Away from the harried action, I could think about boys, plan my next day’s outfit and look forward to the post-game trip to Dairy Queen.

My contributions on the basketball court were typically limited to winning the tip off, thanks to my height advantage, and then getting subbed out almost immediately to assist our manager with the time clock and scoreboard. This persisted through middle school and beyond: for some reason, it went unquestioned that when winter rolled around, so did basketball. Though I never improved, somehow there was always a uniform and a nice spot on the bench for me. Eventually, it became socially awkward to be a junior playing on the freshman team, and I called it a day.

As for tennis, I made the last slot on the varsity team after the coach assessed us in a stroke clinic inside the gym. When the snow melted and we actually took to the tennis court, it became apparent that even the fiercest backhand required one to run to where one’s opponent had hit the ball. Bemused by my efforts to return any shot from exactly where my feet were comfortably planted, our coach nicknamed me The Tree. Still, I made some good friends and enjoyed the bus rides.

Meanwhile, on the fields and courts of Reisterstown, Maryland, Amit was having an entirely different time of it, never suspecting he would one day throw his genetic lot in with The Tree.

Yet here we are. We walk those histories right onto our children’s playing fields, where Amit looks at those Mud Skippers who seem destined for greatness, and on some subconscious level, he sees himself. He can’t grasp that in our little boy dancing around first base, struggling to keep the batting helmet on his head, and chatting up his opponent, I see myself. For vastly different reasons, we both wonder what will happen from here.

When we talk about sports as character-building, we don’t tend to specify which aspects of character we mean. Sports gave Amit positive attention and leadership roles. His lessons were about confidence and honing innate talent, through practice and teamwork, into success. Mine were about humility, persistence that defied all rationality, and learning to pick myself up after an inordinate amount of defeat.

All those uniforms and practices and smelly locker rooms later, it’s an open question whether sports were all that great for my self-esteem, especially where the things in which I did excel were so undervalued socially. At the Awards Day assembly at the end of each year, I would dread hearing my name read as winner of the Spanish Medal, or the History Prize, scurrying across the stage in shame because I had never – and would never – earn the Presidential Fitness Award.

F—ing chin ups.

F—ing shuttle run.

So I will admit that when I sense that our kids may be cut more from my side of the cloth, I occasionally fight the urge to take their hand in mine and walk right off that field. That urge does not mean that I would steer them away from competition, or from making fitness a priority in their lives, or from the bond formed from being part of a team. But I look around this wonderful city where we chose to raise our family, and I marvel at the opportunities to explore, create and excel far from the sports arenas. Today, our kids’ victories may well spring from poetry slams, or one-act play competitions, or Bollywood dance meets. I want them to swim, and to run, and to learn that their bodies are powerful and capable machines. I hope they get to experience hoisted-on-shoulders elation. But above all, I want them to know that their mind is the only muscle that will chart their ultimate course.

And yet, it is profoundly important to Amit that Kian learns to throw that ball, that he learns these games. It is far more important to me that his spirit keeps dancing. He sees no tension in these goals, whereas I see it in spades. He thinks it is important that Kian at least tries. I can’t argue with that, though after four decades this may be the moment my husband will know what it is to try… and still kind of stink up the joint.

But who knows? I may be completely wrong, and one or both of them will become excellent athletes, who will one day QB our family football game and tell their old mother to “go long.” Like so many other parts of being a parent, I can’t predict it, or control it, or foretell it. But no matter what, I want my kids to see countless paths to their own moments of glory.

Amit does too.

But first, they need to learn how to throw the damn ball.

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