The Dark Side of the Sports

legosports

My 5 year old son, Sam, has his very first T-ball practice this week. He’s very excited about it.

We were at Wal-Mart, buying baseball gloves, when I realized I was actually far more anxious than happy about this. Sports and I have not had a particularly good relationship over the years. I was very much like Sam when I was little. I loved watching the Cubs play on TV, and my favorite player was Ron Cey because his nickname was “The Penguin” (after the way he waddled when he ran) and his batting average was .300 and that seemed high. I played baseball with my sister or school friends in my backyard using an ogre-club-sized green plastic bat all the time.

I was definitely not athletic in grade school, though. I couldn’t run or jump worth a damn, and my DEX score was sufficiently low that my face has seen pavement more than a few times from me doing nothing more than running. This paved the way for disaster the summer before 6th grade, when I decided I really wanted to try out for the school baseball team. I hadn’t been in little league and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I’d thrown and caught a real baseball a handful of times. My first indicator that this was not the best idea should have been the first day when I insisted that – unaware of the existence of “baseball pants” – I was supposed to pull my socks up over my jeans because that’s how real baseball players did it. My second indication should have been when we were playing catch to warm up and I caught the ball with my head. Needless to say, I did not make the team, and I was absolutely crushed. I got bullied a lot as a kid, and there were a few on the team that now had ammunition with which to taunt me. In fact, it was right about this point that I started to associate jocks with two things: dating the cute cheerleaders that I wanted to notice me, and beating me up.

I can, however, say that this incident was not the thing that drove me to D&D and geekery. In fact, I was so upset when I got home after finding out I didn’t make the team that I waited a whole day to finish the board game I was making based on the monsters from the D&D 1e Fiend Folio.

Crossroads

Being prone to melodrama, I have some concerns about dipping my precious son by the heel into the river Sports.

I worry that he’ll feel like I did. He is built very much like his father. Bendy ligaments, lots of HP, but tends to bounce off things. He’s timid about running and climbing and jumping just like I was. That being said, he is also 5 and has plenty of time to acquire the skills I didn’t have. I also worry about overcompetitive psycho parents at games and coaches breaking kids down using negative reinforcement to get them to perform.

I also worry about him becoming like the jocks that used to torment me when I was in school, like sports would be some sort of marinade that renders him a tender, delicious jerk. My irrational fear generator put out some top-shelf material on this one. Some parents worry about their kids getting on drugs. I worry about mine making a nerdy kid cry.

My other fear is a bit more insidious. I’ve dreamed ever since Sam was born of introducing him to gaming of a thousand different flavors, teaching him how to code, and everything else under the spectrum of Nerd. I want to raise a geek, and have fun with him until he moves out, and then once he’s done with college (because they’ll never call you unless they need money) he can bring the grandkids over and we’ll all play Settlers of Catan.

Now we’re introducing him into things I recognize, but the world is foreign to me. I feel like an alien who has read the rules for baseball but might misinterpret a crowd doing the wave as some kind of attack. I don’t know that I can name a baseball player that hasn’t been in the news for steroid use. I don’t know what getting him into sports means for him or his relationship with us, if he’ll like it or for how long, if I’ll have to protect him from some sort of sports-related asshattery. Yes, I’m thinking about Dr. Who-style monsters of the week chasing us around, with sports equipment where their heads should be. It’s how I cope, OK?

I’m scared he’ll love that world and not want anything to do with mine. Yup, definitely irrational. Hooray for baggage. What will probably happen is that he’ll love doing it and then we’ll do lots of nerdy stuff together on days he is not swinging his baseball-hammer. Or he may get hot and bored in the outfield and declare he hates it forever. A man can dream.

Alternate Gaming Reality

To stave off the freakouts while I wait for the reality of the situation to be much better and far more boring than my worst fears claim, my dear wife has had me considering the positives. He’ll learn about commitment and how to work with a team. He’ll get the skills I never had. He’ll be more active and healthy than I was. Hopefully, he’ll get a good coach who’s a positive influence — my life took a definite upswing once started karate as a teenager and got some great people to look up to.

One thing that’s irking me is that apparently for the first several years of T-ball and even into coach-pitch baseball, and nobody keeps score. While I get that this is a chance for them to learn how to do things before there’s any competition, I was under the impression that was called “practicing”. By no means do I want preschool T-ball to be extremely competitive, but I do think learning how to win and lose graciously is a valuable skill many people I know of all ages do not possess. For some reason, I’m viewing this in the same light as fudging combat as a DM so the players are never in any real danger. Not that I’m trying to teach my players how to die graciously. I told you I was going to have some trouble with this culture.

It’s interesting to me that, after six years of blogging about trying new things and playing well with others that a game — another gaming culture, really — has terrified me so. Maybe it’s not so different. I hear all the time that fantasy sports is basically D&D for muggles. I’ll just use the word “fantasy” a different way than everyone else. If that means Ron Cey can polymorph into a werepenguin, so be it.

In the meantime, regardless of what he decides, his mom and I are going to do our part to make sure the road ahead is a positive one. No matter what, we’ll tell Sam he can be his own person and do the things he loves, and we’ll always love him no matter what. I just hope he still wants to fight with lightsabers through it all. But not in the way where somebody loses a hand. That’s not good parenting.

 

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Comments

  1. I know where you are coming from. The first time I played kickball on the school playground, once I finally kicked the ball I ran to third base. Hey, it made sense to me. The first time I played some semblance of softball as a kid, I was flabbergasted when I was called out because my foul ball was caught in the air. “It’s out of play! It’s foul!”

    I was not overly enthusiastic when my son tried tee-ball at about age 4. I came to be relieved when, after a few practices, he was not really interested, though that backfired when he discovered soccer and began playing (or practicing, whatever) with a Peoria Park District team.

    We also got him into dance and gymnastics at that age in the soccer off-season. Hey, a kid needs hobbies. As it turned out, he really liked all of them. It was only once he was six and began with his school soccer team that it all went south. When it became competitive it was not fun anymore.

    It was his first game. He was–did I mention?–six years old. The parents were animals. The father of one of his teammates actually yelled at his child on the field to kick one of his downed teammates because he was in the way of the ball: “Who cares about him? Run over him, kick him, just GET THE BALL!”

    My son left that game in tears, asking why the parents had to be so mean. Normally I am all about honoring one’s commitments, but he never went back to play that sport. I saw to that.

    We turned back to boys’ gymnastics and tap/jazz/ballet classes solely. He really enjoyed both, and I think the fact that he was only competing to better himself was part of that.

    Eventually we had to drop gymnastics because he truly found his love in dancing. He is now 11 years old and taking five ballet or lyrical classes per week. He is a level 3 dancer at Peoria Ballet, and believe you me, he knows about commitment and dedication. He knows about hard work. He knows about being a team player and about pushing himself to improve.

    I am so proud of that kid’s accomplishments, because when I was his age my only accomplishments were reflected in a couple of spelling bee trophies and an enormous pile of useless, memorized Choose Your Own Adventure and Encyclopedia Brown books.

    I’m confident he’ll eventually find what appeals to him and that you will use whatever that is to help teach him life lessons in responsibility, discipline and dedication. That being said, we could always use more boys in the ballet. These girls aren’t gonna lift themselves…

  2. Yeah, I gotta admit all those things you brought up scare me too. I’m not gonna be a parent for a few more years, but I’ve started to wonder about things like “will my child like what I do?” Ultimately I came to the same decision that you did: it doesn’t matter what any children have do, I’ll love them and give them all the support I possibly can.

  3. Sports and I had a misunderstanding during the years when I was growing up. It wasn’t until college that I enjoyed watching basketball. So, seeing my two kids grow up led me to think through the same things you did.

    The easiest was to start with toddler activities such as Gymboree. Undeniably, these were cool for the kids. Sing, clap, and climb something. Then it was trying basketball. I found that I never had to mention how good or bad I was… to my kids I was clearly a great basketball player. And we were having a ton of fun shooting on a small plastic hoop in our play room. Signing them up for classes felt right. And you know, my kids were pretty good at it.

    So why not sign them up for gymnastics, soccer, lacrosse, and anything else that interested them? And when they were one of the better kids in their class, that was fun for me – another cool thing to celebrate. And when they weren’t, it was a nice lesson to them about perseverance. See, I know that as a kid I gave up. I could have worked harder. Seeing my kids not make that mistake is great.

    I don’t overly worry about them becoming bad jocks. We talk to them about good behavior and kindness. They are the kind of kids to help others out, standing up for others when someone starts to bully. (And, really, schools should be on top of that. The puzzle of bullying has been solved and schools should know how to stop bullying – there are established proven ways to have close to 0 bullying in schools and turn bullies into kind kids. It is known…)

    So, for what it is worth, my advice is embrace it and be positive. Get in there and buy the gear, sign up your kid, and encourage them. Have fun playing, because everything you faced in school is gone. This is just you and your kid being healthy, having fun, and learning the great lessons sports teaches us. Strength, courage, perseverance, enthusiasm, camaraderie, leadership, patience… these and more are all helped by sports.

  4. I have a funny relationship with sports, because I came to it very late in life. I needed a cervical fusion when I was a kid, so sports was out of the question for a while, and I never really got back into the habit. I was “the kid with the neck brace” and that stuck even when the neck brace was long gone. Even after few others remembered it, I stuck the label on myself.

    The thing is, I love games. Board games, RPG’s, video games… and now sports. I play squash, I curl, I golf, I play volleyball, I play ultimate (frisbee football) and I’ll try just about any other game I can. When I finally rediscovered sports, I was a bit aghast at all the time I had wasted, and all the fun I had missed.

    When it comes to my daughter, who is 7, I try to keep in mind the lesson I learned during childhood, which was “if you let other people tell you what you’re good at, you’ll miss out on some good stuff.”

    It’s terribly natural, and easy, for us to remember our childhood traumas and to shield our kids from the possibility of reliving that pain. It even works, for a while, when they’re little and with us all the time.

    Sooner or later, though, they leave. They go to school, or day care, or to a friend’s house for playdates, and they come face to face with their limits and with other people’s cruelty. We can’t stop them from getting hurt, no matter how hard we try.

    What we can do is to expose them to as many different activities as possible in the hopes that they will find some things that they’re passionate about. Life is ever so much easier if you know who you are, and part of that is finding those things that you love and are good at. A large part of our self-worth is based on knowing that we’re talented and competent, and the sooner our kids find the things they love, the better off they’ll be. If it turns out that their passion is different than ours, at least we can be happy that they found something they love.

    So let ‘em try everything. Let them learn from their failures, and take joy in their victories. Hug them when they fail and celebrate with them when they succeed. Be their champion.

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