the trauma of sports


When my oldest son Jafta was about four and a half, he began begging to attend a basketball camp he heard about for a friend. I signed him up for one through our city for preschool-aged kids. For three months, he asked about it every day. Despite his shoddy math skills at the ripe age of four, he was inexplicably able to count down the days until this camp started. It was supposed to start on a Monday in April. On Saturday, I got a call telling me it had been cancelled due to low enrollment. The next camp was in October.

I found myself with two options:
1) completely crush my son and have him mope about it endlessly until the next camp starts IN SEVERAL MONTHS
2) accidentally omit information about his age and enroll him in a camp running the same week for kids age 6-8

I made the choice that I thought would best preserve my sanity and signed him up for the camp for older kids. He’s tall, I reasoned. And also, persistent. This was best for everyone involved.

A little backstory: I did not grow up in an athletic household. I have two artsy sisters and a father who is more likely to attend the symphony than a sporting event. I am much more familiar with ballet shoes and chord charts than I am with cleats and shin guards. Gym class was generally a nightmare for me. I was really not coordinated enough to make a ball connect with my foot, or a bat, or any kind of net. I grew up near the beach, where impromptu volleyball games broke out on a regular basis, and I would be prodded into joining a game that was “casual”. Come on! We’re just playing for fun! About five minutes in, I would be subjected to the glares of my friends as they realized that the only skill I possessed was that of attracting balls to my foreheard. All I can really remember from those incidences is feeling my performance anxiety increase every time a friend shouted out, “ROTATE!”, knowing that soon it would be my turn to throw the ball up in the air and smack in into the net. Needless to say, I was never lifted onto the shoulders of my team after making a score in the big game. So the whole concept of being a "sports mom" is both intimidating and a little foreign to me.

Athletics have always brought up deep insecurities for me. And as any parent knows, having a child basically means watching your own fears and insecurities walk around outside your body.
Like when you drop your son off for his big week of basketball camp that he begged to attend, and watch him roam aimlessly through the gym, clearly self-conscious about being the new kid, looking for a friend or something to do and seemingly unsure of where to even put his hands as he looks for a familiar face.

Like when you see him find the few kids he know: a handful of kids from church who are older . . . and he runs excitedly to them, but then stops and walks away because they seem engaged and he seems intimidated.

Like when you observe that just because your tall four-year-old looks old enough to pass for a K-2 student, doesn’t mean he can keep up athletically. There is a vast difference of skill level between your child and the other kids, and you know that he notices, too. Only he doesn’t understand that it’s an age/motor development issue. He just knows he can’t do things as well as everyone else.

Or when, on the first day, you don't send him with snack money because you don't know that they break for snack halfway through, so he sits and watches other kids eat and then can't recover for the second half of the day. Not because he was desperately hungry, but because he was left out and it make him feel self-conscious.

When, after the first day of camp, he asks to play football instead, and you remember that after his first day of baseball camp he requested to play basketball instead. And you know that he’s really just hoping that, in a new sport, he will be automatically as skilled as he hopes and imagines himself to be. And you know that he’s disappointed that he is not.

When, on the way home, your son mentions that maybe next time he could play basketball without any of his friends being there, because having his friends there makes him feel embarrassed.
When you know that one reason your African American son was drawn to basketball is because he has noticed that basketball players tend to look more like him. And he lives in a world where few people, including his adoptive parents, look like him. And then you take him to a camp of over 100 students, and still none of them have brown skin like he does. And you know that he is keenly aware of this, too.
When you come to watch the scrimmage at the end of camp each day, and he sees you and tries even harder to make that basket, and he can’t. So then he pretends to be hurt so that he can be rescued from trying.

When you give him a little more grace than usual about fibbing in the car ride home, because you know that he didn't make fifteen baskets, but he earnestly wishes that he did.

When, every day that you pick him up, you see his face fall when the Camper of the Day is announced and it is not him. And even though you know that each child will get a turn as the coveted Camper of the Day, you also know that to your sensitive son, being the last one to get this recognition is brutal.
And when he finally does get Camper of the Day, on the very last day of camp, and after his name is called and he gets his treat, he disrupts the whole ceremony by running full-speed out of his line and into your arms, and your heart breaks into a million pieces that he's not at all embarrassed to show how proud he is and how much he wants you to be proud, too.

And when you realize that none of this really has anything at all to do with sports, and everything to do with the inevitable beauty and pain and insecurity that is part of growing up. And that there is nothing you can do but cheer him on.

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