Willing to Suck

I loathe these god-awful “sports visits” at the fancy school. By third grade, all boys are separated into two teams and compete in scored events that count toward some school wide, brag-worthy end. This is all in good fun, promotes sportsmanship and team camaraderie, and teaches the kiddos to swim and skate and run and catch and kick. But the avid athleticism worshipped by the school (and greater society, I suppose) necessitates these wretched “visits” so parents can witness their children compete at three different sports per quarter. For me, this amounts to roughly 32 opportunities to watch my boys trip, fall, miss, finish last, and lose. On Monday, I oscillated between the basketball court and the pool to observe my kids’ athletic suck-ery. After eleven turnovers aided by my elder son, I excused myself to watch the younger trail every other kid by a half-length of pool.

“Did you see me come in last?” asked blue-lipped, holding-back-tears Teddy.

Ugh. I wanted to line them all up for times table, state capital, and animal factoid quizzing. I know it’s important for small children to understand, and even celebrate, their differing strengths. But the “sport visit” is such a public display of comparative failings that, in spite of the never-ending winter in these parts, I’m sort of praying for a weather cancellation. After the visit, I aired my grievances about these events on social media, likening them to emotional dodge ball for parents like me. I think my boys are actually fine with occasional demonstrations that they’re not as coordinated as their friends, but I’d rather be spared my trembling, tearful Teddy losing every event.

I know a lovely skating coach. She has all of patience and faith of Job in her dealings with small children of the picked-last ilk. Her maxim for anxious parents of the athletically challenged is Peer Relevance. Our kids may never be Tom Brady… but we can support them to develop enough skills to keep up with the benchwarmers. To protect their self-esteem, children need only be a middling sort of good. Of course, the parenthetical message here is though it’s ok to suck, just don’t suck the hardest.

But someone has to come in last. Not everyone is going to make the team. And although this is brutal for me as a parent who just wants to wrap Teddy in a warm towel and remind him of how funny and great he is, this is an important life lesson. Wise and lovely Katryna pointed out the joy of the struggle: watching kids persevere despite innate deficiencies is kind of awesome. It’s also Life, and probably all of us could benefit from a class or two on How to Suck Gracefully.

Last night, my pajammied boys–all three of them–were engaged in the Nerf Olympics of basketball trick shots. I found them in fits of giggles trying to sink testicle-grazing, between-the-legs shots (‘tweiners?). As the hour got later, and mean mommy insisted on teeth brushing and calmer bedtime activities, Brodie casually mentioned he’d be trying out for travel basketball again next year.

Ugh. Bernie and I traded nervous did-you-hear-that? glances. But then I remembered what Katryna wrote:

When you have a kid for whom lots of stuff comes easily– like all schoolwork, as I guess it is for your kids– I always think it rocks if they are willing to do things that don’t come easily.

Brodie is willing. He’s willing in spite of previous attempts and failures. He’s willing to try again, to flirt with failure, to try to improve. Ultimately, Brodie is Willing to Suck. Even if that doesn’t lead to team placement, it certainly builds character. And if this dogged determination to exceed “peer relevance” stems from unflappable self-confidence then…well… that rocks, indeed.


24 responses

  1. My three CA grands have a very competitive Mom, and I have been present for many of their swim events in various parts of the U.S. Every one of us survived. Not every kid can be a star, and how you sort this out with your kids is an ongoing problem of modern society. Good luck!

    • I agree that this seems to be a modern problem. I recall being an athletic star was a boon in high school, but I don’t remember it playing into one’s self-worth at such a young age as now. Possibly what comes through here is the bald fact that I value sports less than sportmanship. I want them to enjoy sports, but don’t care a lick if they excel at them… that is, until they have to perform. Ugh. Thanks for the support.

  2. Testicular grazing? Well, that’s different. But the subject is a worthy one…and is what we got when we decided we needed to manage and protect our children from spontaneous and largely unsupervised play…in a sad and creepy world. These were times when score was barely ever kept — and kids had a pretty good idea where they fit in skill-wise, based on when they were picked. But they also knew everyone on their team was pulling for them to do well when it was their turn. We lost something important…

    • Well… exactly. I love watching my boys play at made-up-sports played between couches or the ones that involve timed runs around the house. My kid may never make the travel team, but no one plays balloon volleyball better than Teddy. xoxo

  3. Ok, so, when I wrote that bit on Facebook, I had no idea what a “sports visit” was. That sounds god awful. Are the other parents awful? The worst part of sports in my elementary years was the picking of teams. I was blessedly only in the last 4 or 5 picked, not the actual LAST. Still I dreaded it and I bet those kids picked last really dreaded it.

    I have a friend who was extremely successful growing up- ran a 5-6 minute mile at a young age, performed in community theater in award winning roles, straight A’s in school which led to Phi Beta Kappa at an Ivy. When her kids were very little, she confessed to me that she never was willing to do anything that she wasn’t already good at. She regretted that because it meant that there were a lot of things she never tried. Fun things that she wished she had. She was noticing the same trait in her toddler and wanted to help her child to love the struggle as much as the success. This was not something I had ever thought about. I had a sister 2 years older than me. Everything I tried, I sucked at in comparison. I was grateful for the wisdom and it has helped me so many times. Now, instead of being embarrassed by my kids dancing in the outfield when their peers are running down fly balls, I think: wow! I must be doing something right if my kid wants to do this thing and not be the star.

    So, I think you and Bernie deserve a pat on the back. You gave those kids the self esteem they need to try and try and fail and try again anyway. Almost everything worth having in life requires failure before success.

    Thanks for the mention in your awesome blog. I am honored.

    • The parents are NOT awful, and the whole thing is adorable and innocent… unless your kid is holding back tears because it’s just not fun to LOSE EVERY TIME. The problem is mine. You helped me see that fighting spirit in Brodie this week. This could have easily been a rant about the stupidity of overly organized sports for our youth without your insight. xoxo

  4. As a long-time softball coach at the high school junior varsity level, I always have one or two kids on my team (they are quite often the nicest, most polite kids, by the way) who have the least amount of natural talent. Natural would be in italics if I could do that here, because I value attitude and hustle more. Occasionally, I hear side comments from another player or parent: “Why would she want to keep playing when isn’t any good?” There are usually very good reasons.

    In my experience, they simply enjoy the sport. They like it. They want to learn more. But the most important reason they keep playing is because they like being with their friends. They enjoy playing with their friends. This is competitive high school softball. And the most important reason they are there is because they like being with their friends.

    So, if that’s true at 16 and 17, it is probably true when they are younger. You know Teddy and Brodie best, but I am guessing Teddy enjoys being in the water and Brodie enjoys shooting the basketball – and they both really like being around their friends who do the same thing. Getting better and becoming more competitive comes or it doesn’t – although it usually does to some degree. But to many kids, that’s not the most important part. Their friends are.

    Hang in there, Britt – the kids find their way! Keep being supportive, keeping asking them if they are having fun, and always have that warm towel handy.

      • Ha! I, too, have never heard of a sports visit. I don’t believe they have them in the hinterlands of the Midwest. We have “Winter Galas” where parents and grandparents drive 45 minutes to gush over preschoolers singing cute songs for 20 minutes. Out of pure curiosity and because it would be wonderful to see you, if i could pull it off I would love to go with you.

  5. I hear you. I have spent many an afternoon at required opporutnities to witness my kids “suckage” at various sports. Its best when they have a sense of humor about it, even better if they kind of enjoy it, despite sucking. We get that occasionally. Good luck to Brodie with his try outs!

    • The best part about writing this is the public (and private) messages from other parents who have experienced this cringing horror at the sidelines. I’d love for Brodie to be able to laugh off his tennis losses. But odds are he’ll make US feel better when he doesn’t make the bball team (again).

  6. ” …likening them to emotional dodge ball for parents like me.” Great line!

    I love the message here. Don’t be afraid to suck. And even better, don’t be afraid to let your kid suck at something. The fact that any kid is willing to do that most definitely speaks to his character.

    But honestly…how awful for you to have to watch!

  7. Gosh I was always worst at PE in school. I hated it. Why did all those people insist on throwing balls at me – I was only ever going to duck! I was so bad at netball the teacher made me the referee (I liked that, I got to blow the whistle). My middle child has turned into one of those ‘sporty’ kids who loves everything and is pretty good at whatever she tries. I am in awe of her. But she’s not the best – and learning how to lose without it being the end of the world really is important – that’s the point I was going to make. Life is never easy and the more you learn to ‘suck it up’, the better prepared you’ll be for adulthood. But all the mothering instincts rise to the surface when your little one is in tears, bless him!

    • The mothering instincts are irrepressible. My poor parents who watched me fall off of the beam at hundreds of meets! Sports are good… the problem is ME. I don’t really value them. However, if my kid was athletically awesome, I’d likely be singing a different tune. Thanks for stopping by, Sandy!

  8. Perseverance is a tough lesson to teach and an invaluable resource for resilience. Love your tender and witty window into an everyday moment of extraordinary character.

    • Thanks, Marie… always an honor to have you dropping by. I love how you phrase those punch-in-the-belly times with the kiddos. Who knew the heartbreaking bits of parenting would crop up in the everyday moments?

  9. So I was literally just talking to another blogging friend about how few blogs I read anymore. Mostly because of time crunch, but I will admit I have generally lost the desire to spend what free time I have during the day reading blogs. But this post here made me realize some of the good stuff I’m missing out on. God Bless you for commenting on my blog, which reminded me that once upon a time I read some really kick ass stuff over here 🙂

    It is so hard to see your kids fail at something. But you pointed out all the wonderful things about it as well. And I want to give Brodie a serious high five. I started coaching my daughter’s basketball team this year for the first time, which still feels weird. I was never really a jock. But I think in a way that makes me more empathetic to the kids on the team who struggle. Still, it’s easy to get caught up in the competition, and I have had the urge to give the stronger kids more playing time. But I stop myself every time. Because this is 3RD GRADE basketball. And it’s not select. And it’s about every kid feeling like they did something good. I’m going to think of this post when I head to practice tomorrow night.

    Also: “all of us could benefit from a class or two on How to Suck Gracefully.” Sign me up 🙂

  10. So many comments. You have clearly touched a nerve here, and a raw one at that. I empathize with this topic from both the kid and parent point of view. And of course with our Henry, I have the experience of seeing a kid thrive in athletics, which is not something I ever imagined I’d say.

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