Playing for fun — not for runs

Last week, Cooper spent an early weekend morning trying out for a summer baseball league. Depending on his performance that day, he would be drafted to play either the local team (“sandlot”) or the travel team (“self-explanatory”). My Cooper loves him some baseball — but, mostly, he loves to play ball with his friends. He didn’t seem to care where he ended up, so long as his buddies were by his side.

Come to find out, he was picked for the competitive travel team, but most of his friends got into the Sandlot league. So Ray and I gave him the choice — it’s summer, after all. He’s nine years old. The point of playing is to have fun. Did he want weeks of on-the-road playing-to-win competition? Or in-town games? If he wanted the challenge, we were on board. If he  wanted casual games with local friends, well, that was awesome too. We left it entirely up to him. After a few hours of consideration, brows furrowed in serious thought about what he wanted — to play to win, to play to laugh — he let us know. “I want to be with my friends,” he said. “I just want to have fun.” Sandlot it was.

Secretly, I’m glad. I know that my kid has a natural athleticism and affinity for sports, and while I recognize that he’s not a nine-year-old phenom, I’m not surprised that he often gets picked toward the top. It makes me proud to see him perform effortlessly, and a little part of me wants to encourage him to challenge himself, to be better, to excel, to tap into that inherent potential I see buzzing through his entire body.  But, at the end of the day, I don’t care about that. Because for me, sports is about fun, not competition. Yes, I understand that at some point you play to win, but, being me, a sort of granola-munching, Kumbaya-singing Mom, I just want everyone to play. Play. As in, be joyful. Smile. Cheer. Whoop-holla-woot!

Whatever the score.

That’s why I am so glad that Ray coaches. Even though sometimes I get a little nuts watching, I know his heart is always — and first — with the boys. Both he and our team’s other coach each take his role seriously enough to help the team improve their skills and understand the game, but always, always, playing is about having a good time. And even though it seems that, around here, draft season is a big deal for a lot of coaches, when Ray picked the team, he not only chose boys with strong skills, he also chose boys who were friends. Kids who would enjoy playing together. Boys who hung out with each other in their free time — even if their abilities are not on the same level as some of the others.

I think he chose very, very well.

We’re nearing the end of baseball season. Last night our little purple-wearing team played a great game — their opponents were a fairly even match for us, and all the kids did well, even if, in the end, our team lost by one run.  I could see the improvement from a couple of months ago, the solid hits and the well-executed fielding, the way that all the boys are starting to remember where the play is without being reminded, and working together to get the job done. Best of all was seeing the giant grins on the faces of boys who, for the first time this season, got a few RBIs or remembered to throw to the cutoff man or touched home plate.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to win, and nothing wrong with being exuberant and proud when you do. But those smiles, that pride, that unabashed joy — that is what sports ought to be about, not the scores or standings. There’s a reason it’s called “a game.”

If only we could figure out how to help kids to hang on to that feeling.

Coaches?

Sports parents — it’s just a game. Really.

Spring sports season is only a week or so underway, and I’m already a wreck.

I don’t think I’m cut out to be a Sports Mom.

This year, Cooper is playing in a level of his baseball league that is a step up from last year. It’s all kid-pitched, with more strict following of the rules of baseball, and everything is taken more seriously — not by the adults, but by the boys themselves, all of whom are suddenly viewing themselves as the Red Sox (or Yankees, if you are my son).

This year, too, Cooper is pitching. I understand he’s pretty good, though I haven’t seen it myself because I missed those games due to conflict with other sports my kids play.

I’m sort of glad. I couldn’t stand the pressure. But I guess I’ll have to learn how to be a Sports Mom, because the season is so long.

Being a sports parent is a tricky thing. You have to hold your breath and watch your child struggle and rise and struggle and fail, your heart swells with the victories and the defeats, and most of all you have to set the example of good sportsmanship, because, after all, these are still children out there on the field, not grownups.

This is an important thing for all us sports parents to remember — we are the adults. The other kids on the field, the other team? They’re children, just like ours.

I’m grateful that so far almost all of the sports parents I’ve encountered in my town seem to get this. I’m hoping that it continues in the upper levels, through high school.  Sure, some coaches are overly intense for the age level of their players, but only once did I ever hear a coach encourage his team to “crush” their opponents, or lead the girls in a victory dance worthy of a MLB playoff game. (These were 3rd graders! THIRD GRADERS!)

I don’t understand people like that. It’s just a game, after all. Sure, celebrate your wins and awesome plays — but you don’t have to cut down the other guy to do so. Especially when it’s town sports, and the opponents are your kids’ classmates, best friends, some of them. Grow up, adults.

Even while my nerves are a wreck, I’m looking forward to seeing Coop on the mound, and Mitzi too, when she has her turn pitching for her softball team. And, just as I cheer them on, I’ll also be cheering for the other kids, even those on the other team.

Because in kid sports, really, no matter what the score, there’s no reason everyone can’t walk off the field with a smile.

Today, Tim Thomas, you are no hero

It finally happened.

Ice hockey has become a Thing in my house.

I guess I should have seen it coming. We live in Massachusetts, after all, and kids around here seem pop out at birth wearing skates and cheering for the B’s. But I am not from here. I haven’t skated since I was a kid — neither has Ray, who grew up in New York. We’ve never gone to a rink as a family, though Mitzi has gone a few times with friends. As far as watching sports on TV, hockey is about as popular in our house as cricket.

So far it’s just Cooper who’s been growing increasingly interested over the past couple of years, mostly because a few of his friends play (I applaud their parents — aside from the expense of equipment and ice time, those early morning practices are enough to earn you sainthood). Last year he mentioned once that he wanted to give it a try, then never brought it up again. I sighed in relief. Hockey Mom was not my destiny.

This year, though, with the mild winter and new playmates, Cooper, a natural athlete (which is honestly just the truth, not bragging) has had a lot of opportunities to play street hockey. He asked for a net and stick for his birthday, and his generous grandfather complied. It’s now hulking in the basement, and we upstairs are constantly bombarded with the wap, wap, wap as he slapsticks puck after puck. So far, he’s managed to avoid any windows.

Also for his birthday, he’s asked for hockey trading cards to add to his collections of baseball and Pokemon cards so carefully catalogued in three-ring binders. And he wants a jersey of some Bruins player. I know he told me the name, but it wasn’t one of the two I know. I haven’t really remembered a hockey player since I had a teenage crush on Ray Bourque (who was very cute) even though I don’t think I ever actually watched him play a game. He must have been featured in 16 Magazine or Tiger Beat.

All hockey, all the time — all of a sudden.  

So in his emerging hockey obsession, last night Cooper sat through the evening news, refusing to come to dinner, because he wanted to find out why Tim Thomas did not go to the White House to meet the president. I wouldn’t let him miss dinner, so we had to DVR the broadcast.

We still haven’t watched it, but now I have to figure out how to explain to my almost-nine-year-old son that this newfound sports hero was having a moment of selfish brattiness. That the only American citizen on the team couldn’t move beyond his politics and  let his country congratulate him and his teammates on a wonderful accomplishment. That this athlete’s behavior diminished what should have been a singular moment of celebration for the championship players — instead of applauding the men, everyone is now focusing on Thomas’s all-about-me petulance.

Yesterday, Thomas missed the save, the opportunity to show young fans everywhere how to express his personal views to the leader of our country without tantrum or negativity. He missed the chance to show kids democracy in action, as well as showing them that talented and respected athletes, the heroes they worship to passionately, can use their fame and skills to make a difference.

It’s a shame. Cooper loves sports and he loves heroes.

Luckily, Tim Thomas, there are plenty of choices for my son. Today, you’re not one of them.

Got brains? Use wisely…

Sledding is just not my thing.  In fact, any sort of activity that involves me propelling at high speeds down a hard-packed snowy/icy surface with little or no control is not my thing.  Sure, when I was a kid I loved sledding.  But a big skiing accident in high school really put me off the whole downhill thing.

Ray’s always been the parent to take the kids over to our local golf course to sled.  I’ve stayed home to enjoy some rare quiet time, or to hang out with the child(ren) not yet old enough to join the fun.  This year, though, I decided to get over myself and take the kids after school one day a couple of weeks ago.  Frankly, I was a little shocked by how steep the popular hill was, and how fast sleds went.   Being the scaredy-cat that I am, I had no interest in giving it a try, but, after her first run was so terrifying that she cried on the walk back up the hill,  Ellie begged me take her down.  So I did.  And I was right.  The ride was really fast and really scary. 

Last weekend we all went.  This time, the snow was even icier.  Other kids had formed jumps that propelled sledders into the air like little cannonballs.  Most kids who went down wiped out, laughed, did it again.  That day it was Joanna who asked me to ride with her.  It started off badly — we turned sideways and I couldn’t right the sled.  We toppled.  She split her lip, I jammed my thumb.  Later, it was Cooper who wiped out, with a friend.   Fortunately, neither one was hurt in any serious way.

But it all made me wonder — why the HECK aren’t these kids wearing helmets?

We parents today love our helments.  We teach our kids to wear them while biking, riding scooters, roller skating, skateboarding.  Helmets are like car seats — we really can’t imagine our kids without them.  They’ve even become an accepted — required — accessory for downhill skiing these days.  But for sledding?  It doesn’t seem so.

That day, out of the dozens of kids hurtling down that icy hill — with their parents watching – fewer than six were wearing helmets, mine included.  I wondered why, and did a very limited (though informative) survey of some parents I know.  Most say they do make their kids protect their noggins while sledding (I guess those weren’t the parents at the golf course when I was there), but not for small sledding (like down the backyard slope).  Only one responded with an emphatic “no way!”

I heard a tragic story about a child who died while sledding.  I heard tales of broken bones and stitches and near-misses.  Many of us joked that we were lucky to have survived our own not-childproofed growing up, amid unbelted rides in pickup truck beds, open outlets waiting to electrocute us, gate-free stairways, unlocked toilet seats.  And that’s true.  But now we know better.

Or do we?

I know a helmet won’t stop one of my kids from breaking his or her neck or leg.  But it could save a life.

Better safe than sorry right?

(Unsolicted sledding advice:  Never go head first.  Never go head first with three children stacked on your back, even though it seems like a really fun thing to do.  Just my opinion.)