With a couple of edits, this ran in the October 25 edition of the Alameda Sun:
Seasonal Life Lessons
I am learning about sportsmanship this season. As you might remember, I am not necessarily the sportiest girl in town. That fact is being tested this fall: I have agreed to be my fifth grader’s volleyball coach. It’s a CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) team and to be a coach in that league, basically, you just need to be breathing and know how to read, so you can learn what the rules to volleyball are.
How did I get the job, you might be asking? Well, you know how on TV when they line people up and ask for one person to step forward and everyone steps back except for one person? Well, that one person standing out in front of the crowd was me.
Last year in fourth grade, the first year of eligibility for my daughter and her classmates playing CYO girls’ volleyball, the girls did not win a match or a game, but they played hard. I am not sure what the players and the parents are expecting from me or the team this year, but I have some fabulous high school players helping—um, pretty much running things—at practice, so all might not be lost (so to speak).
At the same time this year, one of my seventh graders is playing soccer on a team, that, let’s just say, that has its own share of struggles. The team might not be in the best flight, or level, for its capabilities. They seem to be playing against teams that are much stronger, older and physically bigger. Every time they play, they face unbeatable odds and opponents. Many of the games’ scores sound like football scores, and are a shut out. It’s brutal to watch and I know that it’s starting to negatively affect my daughter.
Losing all the time is insidious and permeates your psyche. You begin to label yourself a loser and you start to see yourself that way in most situations and act accordingly, unless you are lucky enough to somehow turn things around.
I rowed crew in college for a very short period of time both here in the U.S. and in Ireland. In Ireland, I rowed in a pair, which means that there were just two of us in the boat, with no coxswain, so we had to do our own steering. Fiona Little and I took turns using a foot to move a contraption that set the boat in the right direction. We lost every race. We drove the boat into banks of rivers, into the opponents’ boats, into the bushes. We overturned several times. At first, we were the laughingstock of the rowing circuit. But, maybe because though we laughed about it, we still worked and trained really hard (or maybe because we still had so much fun both at the races and at the pub afterwards), we soon became everyone’s mission. Rowers from other teams and schools would run alongside the banks of the rivers and yell out to us, trying to direct, trying to help.
Looking back, I think it was also because the Irish were used to being the underdogs in life, their psyche permeated with oppression and loss throughout the ages. It was our gain, though. Fiona and I were well known for our antics and trials that year. It made losing quite bearable.
But how do you teach a kid here in America in this age of competition, winning and getting ahead how to bear the pain of losing? As a Mom and a coach, my role is to help my girls look beyond the score and the win-loss column, but I have to start with me first. I have to remember what it felt like in when I was rowing and put my kids in the same boat. I can’t let myself get caught up in the win-at-all-costs mentality that I have witnessed in youth sports these days. (Let me just say that CYO is an excellent organization and works diligently to dispel the notions of playing to only win.)
It is easy for a team and a coach to get caught up in the headiness of winning and trying to win. The learning lesson for this year of soccer and volleyball is to focus on playing some aspect of the game better, not necessarily just to win.
It’s really corny, but the old adage seems to be true—it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. (I never thought I would ever say that to my kids much less write it in a column.) Go team.