My son, a fifth grader, plays lacrosse. It’s the only sport he plays. After asking him year after year if he wanted to try sports, only to respect his emphatic, “No,” I put my foot down when he entered fourth grade. Confronting him, I said, “You need to pick one sport to try this year.” He responded with some version of, “But, Mom … ” followed by multiple excuses related to the same theme.
Essentially, my son dreaded participation in a team sport cutting into his precious reading-and-video-game-playing time.
Ending his myriad invalid excuses, I insisted. We then picked a sport. This part came a little easier, as he has attended camps for one sport since kindergarten: lacrosse. This experience resulted not from any early interest on his part so much as my friendship with the wife of the coach of the local college’s men’s lacrosse team. She and her husband ran weekend and summer camps, so logically, I enrolled my son. For the most part, he enjoyed them, but lack of natural talent accompanies his lack of interest, feeding his unwillingness to practice and get better.
Additionally, my son is slow. When watching his games, I can always see him. He’s the kid at the end of the line, every time.
When the whistle blows, he lopes off the field. No one ever associates the word “hustle” with him. Surrounded by aggressive kids positioning for the ball, he stands back and lets them fight it out. He daydreams in the field. Often put on defense in front of the goal, he dances near the net, swinging his lacrosse stick around his head with abandon, occasionally strumming it like a guitar. In other words, he’s not an athlete.
As his mom, I accept the unlikelihood that someday in the distant future he will greet me via television after a big win. Realistically, I’m not banking on him winning a sports scholarship to college either. I observe many of my fellow spectators on the sidelines – you know, the parents of the really athletic kids – and I feel disconnected from them. I just don’t get it. Their angry comments at the refs on behalf of their swift, aggressive children and their overly critical urging of their sons to, “Pay attention and get in the game,” are lost on me. After all, let’s remember, these kids are as young as 10 and as old as 12. Do they really need that level of parental pressure so early in life?
You may ask if I’m so disengaged from the athletic prowess of it all, why do I make my son join a team and participate? Why do I expose him to this part of our culture? While he may never be an all-American lacrosse player of this generation, I need him to learn important life lessons, and some of those lessons are most easily learned by playing on a sports team.
Like I mentioned earlier, when left to his own devices, that’s exactly what he chooses: devices. Beyond athletics, team sports teach kids to relate to each other as teammates. Sports teach children social skills in a world ruled by social media. When coaches instill values as well as techniques, kids learn how to treat each other with respect, to suffer a loss or enjoy a win with equal grace and self-control, and to stop and listen to instructions.
As for me, I wanted team sports to build character in my son, to test him in ways reading and video games never will.
My son’s team made the final game of the playoffs this year. As expected, the athletic kids carried the two single-elimination wins leading up to that game, as well as that final, hard-fought game itself, which his team heartbreakingly lost by a single goal. For the entire season, my son’s athletic contributions consisted of limited playing time filled with tentative defense and, in one bright and shining moment, a long-range assist. He did not score a single goal. Given those stats, I tell you, with a full heart and in all honesty, there could not have been a prouder parent at the end of this season than me.
Why, you may ask in bewilderment? Let me fill you in on my view of his success this season.
When a teammate scored a goal, my son cheered the loudest. I could hear him from the sidelines. He pumped his fist and his stick in the air, running over to congratulate his teammate with a side hug. When a kid on his team got hurt, my son physically supported him off the field, along with the coach.
After walking off the field of that final playoff game, my son excitedly declared, “Mom, we got the silver!” barely acknowledging the hard loss and declaring the other team, “Really tough.” For his attitude, for his sportsmanship, his coach nominated him to present a game ball to the winning team. If given the choice between raising the natural-born athlete or the most compassionate kid on the team, I choose my son, every time, no contest.