Putting sports in perspectiveYou have a child or more than one and find yourself doing everything to provide a full blown intellectually enriching and physically challenging life for them. He attends a good school; you take him for piano lessons. You shuttle her to soccer practice and must decide between dance class and a travel team game. What about cheerleading and oh yes, homework...that little annoyance that interferes with that all encompassing enrichment program you've provided. All in a day's work as a parent, or are you?
I put things in perspective while writing a children's book. The book, Hey Dad, Let's Have a Catch! began as an essay to honor my father, a child of the Great Depression. He worked two jobs all of his adult life in order for my mother to stay home and raise me, but he always found time to play catch with me.
Catch? Yes, catch.
It may be mundane to some and lack the intellectual stimulation of discussing the socio-political implications of Star Wars with your nine year-old, but that happens to be my fondest memory of my Dad because we stood face to face and communicated in a physical activity in which he shared encouragement, a smile and simply took the time in between jobs to entertain me. He was a man of few words so "Nice catch" and "Good throw" were soliloquies to my ears. Organized sports? Please. The only organized sports my neighborhood friends and I had were regular stoop ball and running bases games. Trust me, they weren't that organized.
Zen of the Catch
When my son was born it was only natural for me to take him out as soon as he was old enough to begin playing catch or kicking a soccer ball around the yard. As he grew older, a strange phenomenon occurred. All of the other parents, in an Invasion of the Body Snatchers mode, began asking, "What league is he playing in? Is he on a travel team? Does he take Karate?" The quest for a well rounded child was beginning. After all, college scholarships are given in sports. You can't start soon enough. You have to get them ready for the real world.
"They're only five years old!" I thought to myself.
A young adult who achieves a college scholarship in a sport does so because at some point in their lives, usually in adolescence, they fall in love with the activity and develop (that overused word) a passion. According to Bob Bigelow, author of Just Let the Kids Play, the person develops an enthusiasm for the sport/activity and throws themselves into honing his/her skills. Each child or teen does it in his/her own time frame. You don't want your child to peak at ten, get sick of the sport and become a Wii master. Michael Jordan didn't start on his high school team until he was a senior. Get the picture?
Admittedly, I got caught up in the frenzy. As a former high school and college soccer player I wanted to expose my son to the game. His local public school only had gym once per week as well as music and I thought it was necessary to enhance those areas of his development. My role became chauffeur. I was being a diligent parent driving him to these activities, but I suddenly realized the dynamic. I sat in the front seat and he in the back. Without a doubt he knows every nuance of my bald head, but what about face time? As he grew older, the once non stop dialogue turned into one word answers, a normal thing I've been told, and I soon came upon an amazing discovery.
While playing catch with him I began to realize what I refer to as the "Zen of the Catch", the rhythm of the catches and throws of the ball, apparently had a hypnotic effect which seemed to allow important messages, stored somewhere in his cerebral cortex, he had forgotten to come out. Often these factoids were about wonderful experiences he had but may have been too busy to tell me. I call them "Oh yeah, Dads". Here's an example
Snap of the ball in my glove, "Oh yeah, Dad. I forgot to tell you. Two weeks ago in math class I was able to figure out a problem on the board in front of the class that I had trouble with for homework. The teacher was pleased. Now, I understand it."
"That's great! How did you feel?" I said as I threw the ball back. "What else happened?"
A twenty minute catch in the back yard is good for at least two "Oh yeah, Dads". Time well spent. And he didn't have to suffer the glare from sun rebounding from my chrome dome while sitting in the back seat.
It became painfully obvious to me that as parents we have become facilitators, the person who guides people through a process but isn't necessarily an expert. Facilitators don't get to know their group members. They just know how to get them from one part of the session to the next. We are taking our children to places in which other adults look them in the eye, provide coaching, guidance and encouragement. Isn't that what we are supposed to be doing?
This is not a condemnation of parents who want to provide every advantage in life that they never had. Providing music to a child when you couldn't carry a tune is a noble action. Paying for Karate lessons, when you know the feeling of being bullied in grammar school, provides self-discipline and self-esteem. Driving your child to travel soccer games is laudable provided you are not grooming them to become the next Landon Donovan or Mia Hamm if they don't have the skills. Let's just make certain that we get that face time so we can share a smile and twinkle in the eye when they do something special.
"Get off the sidelines and into the game!"
Harold Theurer, Jr. is the author of Hey Dad, Let's Have a Catch! and longtime soccer coach. To visit his website, click here.