From an early age it was clear my son was a natural athlete. He never sat still and could spend hours entertaining himself with a 25¢ ball. He was constantly running around outside and ringing doorbells looking for like-minded kids to play with (a lost art in itself). Who knows how many hours my husband and I have spent tossing baseballs or kicking soccer balls to him on otherwise deserted athletic fields; even on Christmas day, and in New England, that's saying something.
The play's the thing
But, the unique thing about my son is this: as a child, he wanted to PLAY, not join organized teams. He would join the town leagues, and always excelled at whatever sport he tried, but in the end he would rather spend countless hours in free play with a group of friends or family members, rather than put on a uniform and show up for a one-hour scheduled game. His favorite place to be in the summer was the local Rotary Camp, a residential camp in the neighboring town where he could play all day - soccer, basketball, four square, you name it - from sun up to sun down. While the other kids in our town were going off to sports camps and working with "professional" trainers, he was challenging the cook at the camp to four square contests, and winning every time!
While this might sound romantic and nostalgic, it was no such thing. How could a kid with so much talent waste it on play? Why can't this kid come around and join organized teams where he can do something with this skill? And what about the other kids who were playing on these organized teams and traveling to distant tournaments? Weren't they going to surpass him, get the big rewards and earn that college scholarship? Seriously, I have fretted about this. If only he was born years ago when kids played like we did back in the 70's, we wouldn't have to worry about this stuff.
About 8 years ago I attended a lecture presented by Bob Bigelow, former NBA player and lecturer, about the role kids sports plays in today's culture. During the lecture attendees were given a handout of organizations that supported parents who had not, or whose kids had not, bought into the organized, frenzied culture of youth sports of which my son was clearly not a disciple. Apparently, other parents out there were experiencing the same situation I was: athletic kids who wanted to play without adults telling them what to do, when to do it and where to show up. On the list of organizations was MomsTeam.
I immediately visited the website, read several of the recommended books, including Brooke De Lench's Home Team Advantage, and found comforting reassurance for my angst; that it was okay for my son to want to play, and that in fact it was preferable in some cases to the organized version of kids sports. Brooke's very difficult advice - that sometimes the best thing a parent can do is nothing - was a one-sentence wonder to me.
Really, could she be right? It made so much sense, but then why was everyone else doing the opposite: playing on three teams at a time, specializing in one sport at a young age? And what if she was wrong, would my son "pay" for his play habit by allowing other kids to get ahead of him? But, like Brooke writes in her book about the need for kids' sports being about play vs. miniature versions of adult work, my son wanted to play. Play challenged him to use his imagination, to make up his own rules, to exceed his current level of ability (flow). As a young boy, he was not ready to turn these components into an organized outcome, at least for the most part.
Advice that worked
After he entered puberty, my son did grow more comfortable with the idea of playing sports as an organized outlet, and by freshman year of high school, he tried out for the high school soccer team. Although he had played goalkeeper in the town league, perhaps because he had not had formal training, he did not think he would make the team as a keeper, so he tried out as a field player. He made the freshman team while some of his friends made the JV team. This was a little difficult for him, but he made the most of it and he ended up playing keeper for the freshman team, and loving his role so much that, by the end of freshman year, he had taken formal goalkeeper lessons, joined his first club soccer team, and, just before entering his sophomore year of high school, tried out for and made the state Olympic Development Program (ODP) soccer team as a goalkeeper.
This past summer, my son - now 16 - was a counselor in training at the Rotary Camp for a month, where he continued to play all day with miniature versions of himself. When I picked him up for his 24 break the other day, he could have gone directly to an organized summer soccer game (attendance recommended but not required), but he did not want to go. He was exhausted from playing with kids all day and needed to rest. He went up to his room and slept for 14 hours. When I drove him back to camp the following day, he was wearing sunglasses. He noticed a group of kids standing near the basketball court, some wearing glasses, some not. Within two minutes of arriving at camp, he had formed a basketball game between the sunglass wearers and the non-sunglass wearers (I know, someone could get hurt playing basketball wearing sunglasses, but the game turned into shirts versus skins pretty soon, given the heat).
Doing nothing has been one of the hardest things I've ever done for my son, but by far the most important. It not only gave him the time he needed to develop his athletic skills on his own, but it made his accomplishments his own as well. Perhaps there were a few moments when he did fall a little behind, as his freshman experience suggests, but he made up for it by discovering himself the position he liked best and the perseverance he mustered up to excel at keeper. Kids are flexible: if they want to do something and have the ability to do it, they'll make up for the "lost time" pretty quickly, no matter what the circumstances.
More importantly, my son knows that if he had decided to try something out other than organized sports, we were not so invested in his sports "career" that it would have been an issue; he could always look forward to spending the summer at camp playing all day with other kids.
Brooke Delench's advice that sometimes the best thing a parent can do is nothing made all the difference in the world. I couldn't have done it without her and I honestly don't think my son would be the athlete he is today without her either.
Meg Black has a PhD in education and lives in Massachusetts with her family.