Monday, August 12, 2013
We come from a long line of losers.
"I did not have any fun, Mom."
That's the first thing Oliver said to me when he came out from his afternoon sports "camp" last week. I was surprised, because on all of the other days, he had a great time. He was always one of the less-coordinated players, but before that day he didn't seem to mind.
On baseball day, he ran the bases backwards and told the teachers he bats left handed. On frisbee day, he hit himself in the face with his own frisbee. During a relay race, he relayed the baton to a different team. On all of those days, he had a blast despite his mistakes. On that particular day, he scored a goal for the wrong team, but he didn't look very upset about it when it happened.
I asked him why he had no fun this time around.
"The other kids kicked my ball out of the goal."
It was true. I'd seen it happen. The goalie blocked his shot, and while that is an understood part of the game to most of us, to Oliver it was a malicious act singling him out to deny him the goal he was working so hard towards.
At that moment I felt torn between wanting to laugh and wanting to cry. On one hand, there was this pitiful little boy, completely crushed by his perceived poor performance in an unscored preschool soccer game, crying about how he will probably never ever go to school because he isn't good enough at sports. On the other hand, I saw him out there trying his hardest and failing in spite of his best efforts, and I know how hard that hurts. It was heartbreaking to see how gravely he was taking his failure. To him, clearly, this was a very big deal.
I tried to comfort him the entire car ride home. I told him over and over again that I was proud of him for trying something new and giving it his best shot. I told him that he can practice and he will get better and better. I gave him the cliched parenthood speech proclaiming over and over again that I'm proud of him no matter what, but he's starting to be too old to be comforted by that. He wanted to win. He wanted to be as good as the other kids. He wanted to compete.
I tried to tell him that part of playing sports is that while it's fun to try and win, somebody always has to be the loser. That not everybody gets to win all of the time. I thought he knew that, because he graciously loses over and over again in board games. We never cheat or rig the rules to give Oliver advantages at home. We thought he understood that sometimes you win some, sometimes you lose some, and that's no big deal.
I thought my speech would make him feel like it was okay to be the loser sometimes, but instead it only served to make him realize that this time he was the loser.
"I'm a loser!? I don't want to be a loser!" he yelled from the backseat before returning to his sobbing and moaning with renewed gusto.
I never did manage to say anything that made him feel better. In the end he forgot his troubles over a glass of juice and an episode of My Little Pony. And when he was completely over the whole thing, it was I who sat and dwelled on it.
I don't want him to end up the way I was: too afraid to try something I wasn't naturally good at. I spent so much time worrying that I would never be as good as others would be, so I never even tried. I quit before I started, because that seemed so much easier and safer than giving it my all.
It's easy to see now that I made a mistake. The world wouldn't have ended if I had played basketball and sucked at it. I wouldn't have been ruined forever if I had painted something and somebody told me it was ugly. I would have gotten past a few snide remarks and jokes at my expense and I might've actually had fun.
Today when we saw some kids playing soccer in the neighborhood, Oliver asked if he could go outside and practice playing with them. Just yesterday he told me he was no good at soccer and he would never play again, but today is a different day.
"We could practice and then next time at sports class I can score a goal and win."
I guess he was listening to my speech after all.
I always thought that the parents who said they were proud of their kids for "just doing their best" were full of it. I used to think that parents only said that because it's what parents are supposed to say. I always thought that they would be prouder if their kids actually did well. But the more I think about it, the more I believe the opposite to be true: I would be prouder to see Oliver try his hardest and come in last place than to watch him effortlessly win the gold.
It takes so much more strength and so much more character to put out everything you've got in the face of adversity. As I watch him in the backyard struggling to keep up with the more skillful older boys, I really do feel proud. I know it's just two neighbor kids and a soccer ball, and that Oliver is only a frivolous preschooler. I know that the hopes and dreams and determination of a 3 year old wax and wane, but to Oliver right now at this very minute, that backyard game is the World Cup and he's giving it his all.
And I'm immensely proud. (Even though his feet haven't touched the ball once.)